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Server Cabinet Relocation: How to Safely Depopulate & Repopulate a Rack

Faced with cabinet relocation? Your data center staff needs to know how to depopulate and populate server cabinets safely to move them. Moving a populated storage rack without the proper equipment can damage the supporting structures because they are not designed to withstand tilting, lifting, or sliding.

Likewise, servicing a rack’s midplane, internal power cables, DC input unit, or DC adapter tray requires partial or full depopulation and subsequent repopulation of the rack. Just as with moving an entire cabinet, conducting regular maintenance requires techs to move heavy components, exposing them to the same risk of electrical hazards and muscle strains.

IT components can weigh anywhere from 30 to nearly 1000 pounds. OSHA warns laborers, “Lifting loads heavier than about 50 pounds [22.7 kg] will increase the risk of injury.” As a data center manager, you can reduce the probability of one of your employees getting injured while moving equipment.

According to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, data centers can use up to 200 times more electricity than found in office environments. While properly functioning equipment contains safeguards to protect against electrical shock, damaged or defective equipment can fail and become hazardous.

Employees doing hands-on work in server racks should understand the dangers, for example, of arc-flash incidents. They should know that these events result in fatal accidents and severe injuries every year. Data center employees must know how to avoid them.

Tips to Avoid Accidents

1. Develop and Encourage a Culture of Safety in Your Data Center. You can prevent risks to personnel and equipment by providing compliance and best practices training in your data center before your staff ever sets foot inside the center. Server cabinet depopulation and repopulation, as well as server migrations, represent some of your data center’s highest-risk activities. Data center safety training should include best practices information that includes the following:

                 a. Best Practices for fire protection, prevention, and suppression

                 b. Electrical safety

                 c. Working in confined spaces

                 d. Protection from indoor noise exposure

In addition, employees should understand the potential consequences of poor practices. For example, spilled soda on servers being used by a hospital is a big deal, because the server could shut down during surgery or while a patient is on life support. An arcing event could cause a death or a fire.


2. Use a Cabinet Diagram. A cabinet diagram requires a little extra work initially, but it will save time and frustration in the long run. Here’s how to make and use one:

a. Make the Diagram. Before removing a server or other element from the server rack, label the cables still connected to the modular system. Also draw out the positions of the components, such as servers, switches, and VLANs on the rack, to assure correct population in the new cabinet.

b. Tape the Cabinet Diagram to the Target Cabinet. The cabinet diagram, or map, will help populate the target rack later. Tape it to the target cabinet, to visually confirm proper component racking and cable connections. Disconnect the data cables only once the diagram has been taped in place. 


3. Check and Recheck Before Pulling Components – Whenever moving electronic devices, dangling cords and cables can create hazards by tripping an IT tech, catching and detaining the heavy devices at their most vulnerable moment, or getting severed and creating a dangerous arc or short. Before pulling a device from its cabinet, take a few precautions.

a. Remove Power from the Cabinet. Before pulling a server or other apparatus from the server rack, assure that you have removed power connections from the cabinet. All cables, wires, or cords should be removed or safely wrapped and fastened to the device.

b. Be Sure to Release the Chassis 100%. Each component of the server cabinet will have screws attaching its chassis to the rack brackets. Unscrew them from the rear to front, and move servers one by one. You want to be sure to remove all of the screws to avoid accidentally pulling and tipping the server rack along with the component you’re uninstalling.

c. Check for Foreign Objects. Check to see that tools, cell phones, cables, hands, feet, shoelaces, and other loose items will not get caught in rail or lift movement.      


4. Use a manual or motorized server handling lift – Keep staff from injuring themselves during equipment moves, and keep from damaging components. Use a lift whenever moving anything over 50 pounds such as servers, switches, or boxes of cables.

a. Respect the lift’s load ratings. Learn the weight of servers and components before moving them, and never load a server handling lift more than the lift’s rated capacity. Keep the lift’s user manual with the lift at all times, for reference. Consider noting the capacity on the server handling lift itself, where you can see it.

b. Only Use the Lift for Appropriate Equipment. Never sit or stand on any lift not designed for such use. Keep tools, cell phones, and other personal items off of moving equipment.

c. Secure IT Equipment During the Move. Straps are commonly used to secure IT equipment when moving an ALD over uneven surfaces: thresholds, floor outlets, cable protectors, ramps, outdoor sidewalks, driveways, and other bumpy surfaces.

d. Keep a Low Center of Gravity. Move IT equipment only in the lift’s lowest position, preventing destabilization and resulting accidents.


5. Store the Servers Appropriately – A server belongs in a server rack. Otherwise, store it on a sturdy surface, designed to hold a server.


Populating and depopulating server racks pose some of the greatest risk events for personnel and equipment in your data center. You can ensure that employees stay safe and take care of equipment by reviewing these safety practices with them.


Mark Evanko is the principal and one of the original founders of BRUNS-PAK. BRUNS-PAK’s 37 year/5500+ project experiences in design/building high technology data center projects serve as the basis for the evolution of the ultra-reliable facility. Mr. Evanko actively participates as a BRUNS-PAK project director integrating facilities with information systems in developing technically proficient solutions.

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