Zinc whisker infestation

When bureaucrats make pennywise datacenter decisions, expect anything -- even a zinc whisker infestation

Tiles are tiles, right? What's a little galvanic corrosion among friends?

I work at a small company (about 300 employees), owned by one of the largest in the world. Yes, of course the parent company is brutish, inept, inefficient and overall, a PITA to deal with. Their senior management, however, naturally thinks otherwise, and does not like, to put it mildly, to have its questionable practices challenged.

Our very small datacenter has a raised floor, for which we needed some new tiles. The datacenter manager did the research, recommended a product and a vendor we had previously used, and requested the purchase be made.

Mr. Pinchpenny, who works in another state and has never seen or met any of us, was in charge of purchasing. He decided to save a few bucks and forced us to use tiles that were languishing in a company warehouse. We gamely installed them over a weekend, lamenting the fact that we had to mix so many ugly and beat-up tiles into our formerly pristine floor.

Several months later, a couple of our servers suddenly stopped in their tracks. Bad power supplies. We thought it odd that more than one at a time would go down at the same time, but we didn't have time to ponder the issue. Production servers had stopped producing so we had to act quickly. I swapped out the hard drive of our e-mail server that evening, after it had been down for several hours. The regular e-mail admin had fled the scene with an excuse, both of us knowing that he had no idea what to do.

"Hmm, must have been a surge," we said; knowing full well how clean our power was with our industrial strength UPS and surge protectors on the smaller machines. We had our suspicions about the real problem but none of us said anything to the honchos. (Remember: our management doesn't like having its methods questioned.)

A few months later, the same thing happened again. This time, it took out two small machines and an IBM mainframe.

A specialist was called in, to whom we deferred because we had no other choice.

"Zinc whiskers", the specialist said. This theory was greeted with suspicion and outright derision by certain managers, namely Pinchpenny. Initially, all of us were a little leery of this idea, but having no better theories, we reserved judgment.

As in many shops, the frame that holds up our computer floor is made of anodized aluminum. Mr. Pinchpenny's tiles, used and dirty, had galvanized steel edging, which made direct contact with the aluminum frame. Apparently, galvanic corrosion is not a subject covered in Purchasing's training materials.

Eventually, smarter people prevailed, and a couple of guys with vacuum cleaners came in over the weekend and cleaned up the whiskers. This after a US$50,000 bid from someone else was rejected. Our current set of floor tiles has plastic edges, and they look and work just fine.

We've had no trouble since -- with the whiskers, at least. Much to our chagrin, senior "management" from the parent company remains, collecting their six-figure salaries for wasting resources and giving us a huge, collective headache.

And by the way, to my knowledge, none of us actually saw any of the afore-mentioned whiskers, yet a quick Web search reveals that they've been a known issue since 1948. Sometimes word travels slowly, I guess -- even in the Internet age.

Posted by an anonymous writer.

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