The Australian Taxation Office has become the latest Australian victim of a creeping chemical syndrome quietly wrecking hardware across Australia.
Known as zinc whiskers, the syndrome that hits data centres stems from ageing galvanized floor tiles that shed millions of minute, yet highly conductive zinc filaments if the tiles are disturbed. And these are extremely disturbed if you pull up sections of floor.
Only microns in diameter, the metallic menace then infiltrates cooling systems, short-circuiting power supplies and sensitive circuitry as it spreads.
According to a statement from the ATO, zinc whiskers were first detected some weeks ago when power supplies at its Newcastle data centre started mysteriously failing.
Since then ATO has hired a specialist decontamination contractor to suck out the particles, purge the air conditioning system and replace the galvanized floor of the facility.
Just how far the problem extends within ATO, or its outsourcer EDS, is still being assessed. However, a number of ATO facilities are known to have been have been checked, with costly stabilization work now under way.
The outbreak has resulted in a full audit of all ATO data centres to determine the scope of the problem - and the level of remedial work needed to address risk management and occupational health and safety guidelines.
"Specialist industry assistance has been obtained to identify the type and source of the fibre contamination and to progress the decontamination of the computer facility. Site operations have been stabilized and no further power supply failures have occurred in the past four weeks. A full audit of the Tax Office's computer facilities is currently in progress," the ATO said in a statement to Computerworld.
Vendor facilities are also coming under the under the spotlight as CIO awareness of the issue grows. Computerworld contacted outsourcing services providers EDS, CSC and IBM Global Services to poll zinc whiskers awareness with mixed results.
A spokesperson for IBM said zinc whiskers had appeared in its facilities "four years ago" resulting in "an audit of all our data centres and major outsourcing sites".
"All suspect tiles were replaced or sealed," the spokesperson said, adding that 10 facilities had been purged.
A spokesperson for CSC said the vendor had been aware of the problem for some time and countered the menace with a combination "whisker proof" floor tiles and regular cleaning. It did not consider zinc whiskers an issue for customers.
"Generally customers don't ask about it because they are more concerned with the resilience of the data centre itself," CSC's spokesperson said.
A spokesperson from EDS said the company is aware of zinc whiskers, but would not say whether its customers were concerned about the issue.