Zinc whiskers found in War Memorial

Only weeks after the Australian Taxation office called in a specialist decontamination unit to exorcise the data centre demon of zinc whiskers, another Australian victim has stepped forward to warn others of the bizarre metallic syndrome.

This time it's the Australian War Memorial (ACT).

Zinc whiskers are minute filaments of zinc only microns in diameter that grow on the underside of galvanized, data centre floor tiles. When sucked into cooling systems, the whiskers short-out and wreck computer power supplies and sensitive circuitry.

War Memorial IT manager Daryl Winterbottom says his experience 18 months ago was not a pleasant one. After suffering repeated inexplicable power outages, Winterbottom pointed the finger at faulty power supplies, but to no avail.

"We were at wit's end and only after extensive testing and monitoring of the power supply did we agree that it was not the source of the problem," Winterbottom said.

"We then turned to our building services people and got a power consultant on site to look at our internal power and someone mentioned zinc whiskers ... and then we resorted to Google. The outages tended to be confined to power supplies because of the airflow - high-volume fans were transporting and concentrating the fibres in that area. To my knowledge no motherboards or servers were affected, because they have a redundant power supply."

Winterbottom said he was nearly laughed out of the office after suggesting the problem was related to zinc whiskers and held to a fair degree of scepticism until they were proved by a consultant to be the cause of the outages.

The Australian War Memorial then replaced the floor of the computer room with galvanized, zinc-free floor tiles.

Winterbottom said that once you know what you are looking for, the zinc whiskers become obvious.

"You can shine a torch on the underside of an old floor tile and see the whiskers vibrating."

But the whiskers are not bad news for everyone - especially professional de-whiskerers like Garry Karklins.

Karklins manages a tidy sideline from his independent IT vendor consultancy Computersite in identifying and ridding data centres of the scourge.

"People are not interested about the risks of zinc whiskers until they put together for themselves the fact that they have been experiencing unexplained outages." Karklins said recent discussions about the issue with a major IT vendor showed suppliers prefer to keep the matter quiet.

"[The vendors] said the only people that would be interested are those with balaclavas and trench coats. You won't find zinc whiskers discussed in the public domain, because vendors, and those that have been hit by them, are keen to maintain their confidentiality.

"What you have are pure zinc stalactites that sit undisturbed under floor tiles and once they ... circulate you have a game of Russian roulette," Karklins said.

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