I recently had the opportunity to have a walk through a datacenter, and one thing I clearly remember from my tour is it’s loud. Very loud. I could barely hear what my tour guide said sometimes. Then I thought, “How does this affect those who work in the datacenter?” Yikes! Protecting your hearing is one of the basic requirements for technicians who work inside a datacenter environment. So unless you grew up listening to loud music using earphones and as a result have developed a transparent ability to lip-read when your family and friends are talking to you, you need some kind of ear protection when you spend any length of time in a datacenter or large server room where lots of computing and networking equipment — and air conditioning — are constantly running.
In fact, datacenter noise is actually more hazardous to the long-term health of your hearing, according to what I’ve heard some people tell me. This is because the noise generated by hundreds or thousands of blowers and high-speed fans and spinning hard drives in datacenters is basically white noise, noise whose volume is more or less constant across all frequencies. Electric guitars, on the other hand, range all over the sound spectrum, which makes it a lot more interesting to hear Jimi Hendrix playing than listening to the air conditioner in your bedroom. White noise, however, causes continual excitation of all of the cilia in your inner ear, which apparently shortens their life in practical terms. So a datacenter facility worth its salt should have a notice clearly posted near the entrance of the colocation area saying that wearing adequate hearing protection is a requirement for entering the area.
Anyway, to get a handle on this subject I spent a bit of time recently polling some of my colleagues who inhabit, or who know others who inhabit, datacenters of various sizes. What follows below is a summary of their recommendations with the caveat that I haven’t myself tried any of them, so take them as-is with no guarantee or warranty, as they say in the legal biz. But if you spend anything more than a few hours a week inside a datacenter I recommend that you investigate these recommendations. Unless of course, you own stock in a hearing aid company.
Most of my IT pro colleagues suggest using earplugs of some sort for working for short periods in noisy environments like datacenters. Earplugs provide passive sound protection of typically about 20dB or more, which should probably suffice unless you like putting your head inside the A/C duct system. I’ve heard from one friend of a friend who works in a colocation facility that 3M Peltor Combat Arms Earplugs are pretty good — the U.S. military and NATO use them — though Military Times reported about some alleged defects with them that resulted in a contacting company being fined millions of dollars. But they fit nicely in your pocket and I haven’t heard that my friend’s friend has been unhappy with them.
Earplugs that have retention rings that lock the plugs in place on your ears can be a good solution if you have trouble keeping ordinary earplugs properly seated or have unusual territory in your outer ear canal. In this regard, the SureFire EP5 Sonic Defenders Max Full-Block Earplugs are cheap and easy to use and have a 26dB noise reduction rating (NRR). You can buy these on Amazon. Also check out the EP3, EP4, and EP7 models, which you should see listed under what other items do customers buy after viewing this item.
Another possible option recommended by a network operations guy are ACS PRO Series Custom Earplugs, which are soft silicone earplugs custom made to perfectly fit your ears. I would favor these if I needed them but note that they necessitate that impressions first be made of your ears to custom-make them to ensure a perfect fit. ACS is a UK company, but there are likely other similar companies in your own country that can manufacture such items, just check around. Remember, though that ears gradually change over time, so any plugs that are molded specifically to the shape of your ear will need replacement and refitting after about a year or so.
By the way, if your ear canal has an unusual shape that makes fitting standard or even custom plugs properly, you might want to just pick up these 3M Classic E-A-R plugs for a few bucks from Amazon. And if you’d like something colorful you can always buy a pair of Honeywell Laser Lite Earplugs. Just don’t mistake them for pieces of candy. Or if you enjoy listening to music (and conversation) while blocking out loud noise, several IT pros have recommended the Etymotic High Fidelity Earplugs.
Earphones are the next step up from earbuds because in addition to providing some level of hearing protection they also let you hear phone calls and alerts from your monitoring software. One recommendation I’ve received is the Shure SE215 earphones, which are comfortable to wear and provide good sound isolation. There’s also the Shure SE425, which is a step up, in price at least, and apparently also works quite well if you only spend an hour or two in a datacenter environment.
If you’ve ever been to a gun range, you know that wearing hearing protection is essential there as well. The 3M H10A Peltor Optime 105 Over the Head Earmuffs are used by one individual who works by night in a datacenter and enjoys target practice during weekends. These passive protection ear protectors provide 30dB of noise reduction, which is better than what most earplugs can offer, and the included head bar lets you wear them behind the head instead of over the top if you prefer this position. There’s also the Peltor Sport Shotgunner II, which is a bit cheaper but offers 6dB less noise reduction.
For those who have the money, you’ll probably want to go for a pair of Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones to ensure good hearing protection while letting you listen for alerts or enjoy your favorite rock band or symphony while you install that server. Other headphones recommended to me by datacenter colleagues include the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and lots of others out there to choose from.
I’ll end by mentioning two other solutions that can address the problem of potential hearing loss for those working inside a datacenter. The first solution is to redesign the datacenter so it’s quieter using passive cooling solutions instead of active A/C. The downside with this approach is that it’s generally more expensive — and less efficient unless it uses immersion technology.
The other solution is to work remotely as much as you can. Maybe after the AI apocalypse and robots do all the grunt work in our brave new guaranteed basic income society we can sit happily at home in our cocoons and let our mechanical underlings install new blade servers, reorganize cabling, perform A/C maintenance, and do other menial datacenter tasks.
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