George Alger watched the Web site screen on his computer as the facility manager shut down the 40-year old heating and cooling system and switched on the new system. The screen displayed the temperature and humidity level in 19 computer rooms spread across NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffitt Air Field in San Mateo, Calif.
Within an hour, Alger’s screen showed temperature spikes in each of the computer rooms. He ordered the new system shut down and the old system brought back on line. “The new HVAC system just flat out didn’t satisfy our requirements,” says Alger, assistant division chief and IT services manager at Ames. “They had to go back and totally redesign the system.”
Ames Research Center conducts research in the emerging field of nano-technology and supports NASA’s new mission of broader space exploration. The Center employs a sophisticated computer network that snakes across 300 acres, through 100 buildings, and into the offices of 4,500 employees. Nineteen brim-full equipment rooms support the sprawling network.
The state-of-the-art computer system includes advanced intrusion detection systems and firewalls capable of defending against sophisticated cyber-attacks. Unfortunately, the buildings that house the network are out of date. “Some of our computer rooms are 40-years old,” Alger says. So was the heating and cooling plant serving those rooms. A couple of years ago, Alger began to lobby for a new heating and cooling system to ensure that environments in the computer equipment rooms are maintained.
At the same time, Alger began searching for a sensor system capable of monitoring environmental conditions across the Ames campus. He wanted a system that would alert him to rising temperature or humidity in rooms housing sensitive computer network devices. Alger also worried about some unusual environmental problems. For example, he has locked a bank of powerful batteries in the basement of one building. Fire regulations require close supervision of the batteries because they give off hydrogen gas. “When storing these kinds of batteries, you have to monitor hydrogen concentrations,” he says. “If hydrogen collects in a confined area, it becomes explosive.”
Sensors designed to detect temperature, humidity and even hydrogen cost as little as $10 each. The problem was finding a cost-effective way to track sensor readings in 20 or so buildings. The first monitoring solutions he evaluated cost $2,000 or more.
In July of 2002, Alger came across a plug-and-play black box with jacks for four sensor inputs. With hubs connected to each of the four jacks, the device would accept input from up to 250 sensors. The thin 8- by 10-inch box, called a WallBotz, consolidates all incoming data and provides a single output that plugs directly into the network. WallBotz software summarizes the data from multiple boxes on a single Web page. More important, the system can be programmed to send alarms to specified e-mail addresses, pagers and telephones when environmental conditions change for the worse at any sensor point. The cost: about $1,000 per box. Alger bought 20 of them, one for each of 19 computer rooms and one for the basement where the batteries were stored.
Developed by NetBotz Inc., Austin, Texas, the WallBotz devices mount directly on the wall of a computer room. “You plug in an Ethernet cable to your network; you plug in the power; and you’re good to go,” says Tom Goldman, CEO of NetBotz. “If you don’t have a network cable, it will run wirelessly.”
The WallBotz devices also house small cameras capable of streaming video across the network, storing pictures inside the WallBotz itself, or sending pictures to specified e-mail addresses under alarm conditions. Motion detection software inside the camera decides when to take pictures. Sensors feeding WallBotz can also turn the cameras on, if for example, the humidity rises to a level that might suggest a water leak.
“Our original intent was to monitor the environment in our computer rooms,” Alger says. “We weren’t thinking about the cameras and physical security.”
When the WallBotz network performed so well on its first major assignment — alarming on the unsatisfactory performance of the first attempt at installing a new heating and cooling system — Alger decided to turn the cameras on.
If he wants to, he can also plug the facility’s existing CCTV cameras into NetBotz boxes, which will Web-enable video from those cameras and even add motion detection.
Today, the system routinely triggers alarms and sends video related to water problems and temperature spikes. So far, the hydrogen level in the battery storage room has remained well within specified limits but knowing the WallBotz system is watching ensures peace of mind.