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Trips to the server room can mean extended periods away from the comforts of home, or at least your desk. Especially if it is an off-site hosting facility.

What should you take with you, apart from a warm sweater for places with good air-conditioning?

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Things is, a decent server room temperature is around 23 degree Celsius - which should be comfortable enough... but many configurations have inadequate cooling which means they're cooling the room to freezing just to get a decent temperature inside the racks instead :/ –  Oskar Duveborn May 1 '09 at 15:26
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In my experience, anything left in a data center that won't actively trip an alarm when removed, will be gone within a year. Some stuff will be accidentally borrowed and some maliciously stolen, but gone none the less. –  jj33 Mar 2 '10 at 17:30
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+1 :( However, in this case, our cage is locked tight, and I don't think anyone's going to do some ninja stuff to steal my tools. –  Bill Weiss Mar 2 '10 at 17:47
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37 Answers

up vote 37 down vote accepted

Things that I always carry on my person, so would be present:

  • cell phone
  • iPod
  • pen/notepad
  • thumb drive
  • multitool

Things that I keep in my laptop bag so I don't have to think about it:

  • "carb bars" (I don't know what these are, but they last forever. My wife made me start carrying them after I had to sleep in a data center during a blizard.)
  • quarters for snack/pop machines
  • a baggy of splenda (nothing worse than being stuck with people who only drink their coffee black)
  • notepad
  • Post-it notes
  • recovery disks (live CDs)
  • USB/serial/RS-232 cables and adapters (the 5-in-1 cable kit specifically, though I;ve tweaked it to have things like T1 loopbacks)
  • penlight
  • electrical tape
  • CO scissors (the kind that central office guys always carry around that you can cut and strip wires with)
  • screwdriver (the kind with 6 ends)
  • a small hand mirror for looking behind/around things

Things I keep in my toolbag - not guaranteed to have with me always, but I usually know if I'll need it:

  • a second 5-in-1 kit and some more cables
  • crimpers with RJ45 and RJ11 ends
  • labels (like, mailing labels - very sticky and handy for rapid labeling until a professional job can be done with a label maker
  • screwdrivers/plyers/end cutters/small socket set - basic tools
  • a huge screwdriver that can either be used as a crow bar or to reach the mounting screws on devices that stick out of the rack (like mid-mounting a 40-inch server in a 2-post telco rack)
  • velcro wraps and wax string (never used wax string? Try it, it's awesome)
  • a collection of writing utensils including sharpies and wax pencils to write on racks
  • a collection of screw driver heads - flat, phillips, hex, torx(sp?), and some other specialty ones
  • spare heavy-duty power extension cords and a three-plug expander
  • a decent digital mutilmeter
  • duct tape

I think I have more, but that's the basics. Everything on that list addresses a specific need I've had in my career. The laptop bag is heavy but well worth the bulk in saved trouble. The tool bag I'm rather proud of, it's not big (it's one of those "big mouth" bags that opens like a doctor's black bag), maybe 18 inches long and 12 wide. I spent a great deal of time customizing the contents to maximize the value for the volume. For instance, I threw away the bulky plastic container the socket kit came in; I built a much smaller organizer for it. Same with the screw heads - I built a cloth with elastic on it that the heads slide into. It's also modular - all the screw drivers are in a large pencil case, so I can find them easily and, if I know I will only need them, I can just grab them out of my car and carry them into the DC instead of the whole tool bag.

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  • A workspace with enough room to work comfortably on a broken 19" server, with screen, keyboard, mouse. Separate from the racks.
  • An old PC. Optimally with controllers and slots to fit every piece of hardware you may have to analyze. Mine speaks SCSI wide & narrow, IDE, SATA, PCI, USB, Firewire 400. Keep a small stash of old computers, if you can. They will come and ask if you can rescue the data from this 5.25" disk one day.
  • A notebook on the side. The rescue PC has no internet connection, to make sure it cant be infected.
  • A big enough disk to put data on that you may have to rescue.
  • Room for spare parts and cables. Room for a museum of old stuff you might need for old systems.
  • Cart. In case you have heavy servers, a lift of some sort.
  • A selection of tools you know you will need. You can keep this small, if you have a complete set elsewhere.
  • Telephone with outside access, if your mobile doesnt allow that.
  • Pen and Paper.
  • Spare parts for your most important servers. If you have several identical machines, keep one spare. It is the organ donor. It may be used for testing new setups, but be prepared to rip it apart.
  • A few switches, network converters, cables of all kinds.

Generally make the server room your fortress of solitude, where you can retreat when the brown stuff hits the rotating thing. Nothing like coming out smiling after one hour of hacking, and the broken server is back up, with all data.

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Amen to point #1. As someone who has to regularly work for a couple of days at a stretch in customer server rooms the one thing that I find that is most frequently overlooked is a decent work surface. Doesn't have to be a full desk but as you say, big enough to open up a broken 19" server and take a screen, keyboard and mouse. –  Helvick Jan 12 '10 at 21:37
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Just to add: A Chair. Really, sitting on the floor or standing for 2 hours just because some update/backup/rescue operation takes time sucks and may not be healthy. –  Michael Stum Feb 19 '10 at 18:29
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I'd add

A magnifying glass** so you can read the ridiculously teeny-tiny writing you get on some equipment, and a mini-maglite so you can use it.

** yes, I am seriously old

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For when it's in awkward places, I've been known to use a digital camera. (and then zoom in on the display, if necessary) It also keeps me from needing to copy down serial numbers while wedging my head into racks. –  Joe H. Mar 2 '10 at 19:23
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Aside from tools I would highly recomend a small first aid kit, and some nonmessy snack foods that keep in storage well. Being able to put a bandage on a paper cut or other small nick on the spot is nice insted on having to hunt down someone from security just for a small bandage. The snacks are good for when it has been two hours too long and you are still more or less stuck in the computer room.

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Forget papercut! Some of the worst cuts I've ever had have been from moving and cataloging old hardware, those steel cases can cut like a knife under the right(wrong?) circumstances. I used a paper towel and duck tape at the time, but a first aid kit would have been much appreciated. –  C. Ross Feb 11 '10 at 18:06
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Food != Raised Floor If you are in the Datacenter Suite with the equipment say no to food. –  JamesBarnett Nov 28 '11 at 3:32
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First, let's assume you have the essentials, including a cell phone and something that tells time (the cell phone will do).

Let's remember, if you have to go to the server room, it means something doesn't work. Otherwise, you could fix it from your desk. So, you should at least have:

  • A USB stick with your favorite utilities
  • A blank USB stick to move files on
  • A flashlight
  • A dustmask (if you have allergies)
  • A screwdriver set
  • A tray to put screws in after you remove them
  • Pen and paper to take notes with
  • An OS image CD, if it doesn't fit on the stick.

After that, it depends on how thick you want your bag to be and your budget. You could do well with:

  • A roll-up mini USB-keyboard, if the server room doesn't have one
  • A laptop to test things "from the outside" and access the internet if your phone doesn't do that already
  • A few extra cables, just in case
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A dustmask... In a server room? –  Mark S. Rasmussen May 1 '09 at 14:13
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Well let's say hopefully not, but I've been in a situation or two where I wish I had one. It's useful if you a) need to go feeding cables, or b) are unfortunate enough to work for someone who doesn't keep their server room clean. The latter, of course, may very well be the reason things broke in the first place. –  lc. May 1 '09 at 14:26
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Lost of good suggestions so far.

How about ear plugs/ear protection. With all the fans running in your typical server room, the noise level is probably above what is considered "safe levels" by your typical ETLA government agency (hence the ear protection).

I bet you could even make a case for eye protection as well.

A second person/working alone policy. Lots of stuff can happen when you least expect it. You get pinned by a piece of equipment. You get electrocuted. Heck, something as simple as you get locked in. If you have trusted backup who knows when you are starting/stopping work and when you are supposed to check in, they can come to the rescue. Otherwise, you could be waiting a long time, or dead.

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Kudos on the ear protection. When we put in our first blade-rack the noise in the DC went up. Plus it had an /evil/ harmonic. If I'm going to be in there for more than 5 minutes, I wear my shooting muffs. –  sysadmin1138 May 20 '09 at 20:28
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I do not wish to repeat some of the good answers here, so I'll put in more stuff I did not see get mentioned:

Physiological

  • foldable stool if you don't like sitting on the floor.
  • Plastic bag for trash if brining in food.
  • muesli bars; fast quick consumption with minimal garbage.
  • more secure containers like camel pak for water; don't give chance to spill liquids like an open cup of coffee.

Equipment

  • laptop power adapter, or extra battery if no available socket for external devices.
  • Ethernet cable if laptop can be plugged into switch patch panel for access or diagnostic sniffing.
  • GSM modem for laptop if there is no wireless network. I don't know how many times that saved our project as I had to VPN back to office network, access version control respository, recompile code and run some tests, then deploy the fresh new build onto servers.
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  • A sweatshirt/hoodie. It's cold in there! It's hard to have a steady hand if you're shivering. If you're not cold, take the hoodie off.
  • A laptop, of course. Make sure you have all the utilities and documentation you will need pre-installed.
  • USB and PS/2 keyboard and mouse if you don't keep spares in your server room. We keep spares there, and all of our machines take USB peripherals, so that makes things easier.
  • A monitor (LCD is much easier to carry) if you don't keep a spare with the servers. Again, better to have a spare already in the room.
  • lc mentioned multiple USB sticks, and I second that. You might consider an external USB hard drive if you have to move a lot of data.
  • Everyone mentioned a cell phone already and I have to agree. You never know when you have to call for help or have someone on the outside run a test.
  • Anti-static wriststrap if you're going to open up a server. Electro-static discharge (ESD) can destroy components even if you didn't see/feel/hear the spark. It can also break things in subtle ways that are extremely hard to diagnose later.
  • Camera (cell phone cam usually good enough). Recording labels, cable routings, server contents, etc is much easier if you can take a picture. Also good for recording water damage, etc.
  • Pen and paper are obviously useful.
  • Masking tape. It peels off more cleanly than duct tape, it's cheaper, and can be used both for labels and for binding errant cables. It's also easier to tear. You can use it to post warnings and reminders as well. You can even use it to keep little screws attached to the case they belong to.
  • Screw driver set (lc and others mentioned this). You will likely need the full range of Phillips (+) and slotted (-) screwdriver sizes. Always use the largest that fits comfortably in the screw, so you don't strip the head. Socket drivers are also handy, and less likely to strip the screw.
  • Penlight (small flashlight/"torch") to see clearly in those tight spaces. Works well with the camera.
  • Small magnet on a stick/tweezers to grab dropped screws from tight spaces. BE CAREFUL WITH THESE! Most magnets are too weak to affect a sealed hard drive, but don't wave one willy-nilly inside a running server. Tweezers are usually uninsulated metal, and pointy metal objects should not be inserted into runinng servers either. But it's much nicer than having to hold an open server upside-down and shake it to get little screws out.
  • Needle-nose pliers. Comes on most multitools. You never know when you need them.

EDIT: - Canned air! Servers collect dust quickly, and it can clog heatsinks and fans. It's also really gross. If you have to go into a server, blow the dust out of there.

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+1 ESD precaution and that the effects can be very subtle –  Oskar Duveborn Mar 24 '11 at 17:30
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Larger, easier to handle screwdrivers, torx wrenches, wire cutters.

The small packs are nice in an emergency, and they go with you, but trying to use those little guys for hours on end can begin to hurt your hands.

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A big, big roll of sheet plastic and duct tape.

For when the ceiling leaks (water), or someone decides they have to drill holes in the walls (dust tent), or when you have to rig up some emergency cooling.

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for sealing yourself in, of course. in case of zombie attack or world-ending virus. someone's got to keep the servers running, right? –  quack quixote Jan 12 '10 at 22:05
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It will get useful when some (l)user comes screaming in because he wants his data immediately. –  Massimo Jan 12 '10 at 22:08
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Carpets can also be quite useful, you know. –  Massimo Jan 12 '10 at 22:10
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but carpets leak. sure, they're opaque, but you need that first layer to be waterproof or you'll end up with physical evidence all over the place. –  quack quixote Jan 13 '10 at 1:58
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For when the ceiling leaks (water), or someone decides they have to drill holes in the walls (dust tent), or when you have to rig up some emergency cooling. –  pboin Jan 13 '10 at 11:20
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Telephones as mentioned above, but with a long enough cord to take the handset to any cabinet. And yes, corded phones -- there's likely to be enough signal on whatever frequency you choose for there to be a problem with cordless.

While I'm on the subject, even if the site uses VoIP phones, you need a non-VoIP, non-PBX, direct line to handle the instances where the VoIP or PBX equipment is down.

Other stuff: Printed reference material - phone numbers, networks, remote host dependencies, etc. Stuff that you might need to bring up the server where the online copies reside.

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+1. Nothing worse than having critical info for fixing a server... on the same failed server. –  Massimo Jan 13 '10 at 18:54
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Zip ties, preferably in various colors, and some kind of snip (I use wire cutters) to cut them free.

Velco ties for short-term binding.

Keep the server room all pretty and neat.

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lets add some velcro ties, too –  Posipiet Jan 12 '10 at 21:45
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Urban myth. As long as you don't tighten the ties so tight that they cut into the cable you'll be fine... –  James Jan 12 '10 at 22:35
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Agreed with @James. There's no physical reason an inert plastic tie would be inherently bad. –  ceejayoz Jan 12 '10 at 23:00
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I always use velcro ties for long-term binding as well, so much easier when the time comes to un-bind a run for whatever reason ^^ –  Oskar Duveborn Jan 13 '10 at 0:35
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@Oskar - one reason to use the zip ties is so that others don't unbind the run just because they came up with a reason. It creates a barrier to change - both for good and for ill. All in all, 6/half dozen, IMHO. –  pcapademic Jan 13 '10 at 9:58
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Multiple spools of Cat 5 cable, along with several boxes of RJ45 ends, because you know you want to use that cable-crimper you've been lugging in your go-bag.

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But you will need to. –  Massimo Jan 14 '10 at 21:10
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  • Some sort of music or podcasts to keep you entertained whilst waiting for the long tasks to complete
  • Snacks and drinks
  • Cellphone and laptop for when you can't get internet access
  • Pen and paper for notes and logging what you've done
  • USB memory drive for moving those drivers or patches betwen laptop and server
  • Selection of drivers, service packs and patches and OS cd's
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Don't take drinks into the server room; sooner or later you'll spill all over a server and regret it. –  Richard Gadsden May 1 '09 at 14:05
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don't use drink containers with low structural integrity like cups or open tumblers. something more secure like well-sealed water bottles or backpacks with straws. –  icelava May 1 '09 at 14:23
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Rolling carts. For the single-digit server room you describe, one may be enough, although I'd guess you'd want 2 or more.

Use them as a portable tool bin, an easy-to-move worktable, etc. Some setups might have a couple as wandering worktables, and another couple as dedicated terminal carts.

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I'd say these are something I've needed and I've started keeping in the Server Room kit:

  • Flashlight
  • Zip ties
  • Labeler
  • Dell DVDs so if I need to install something or get drivers I can get it from there instead of downloading them
  • A pen (many times I wanted to write something down and found my self with no pen or pencil
  • Sharpie to lable stuff if the labeler won't work
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better than just keeping your Dell DVDs, keep a latest-drivers archive on a handy network share. don't delete old driver versions, since you never know what new drivers might break (or not work with the ancient OS you're installing). having a DVD is handy, but not as handy as having any drivers you need ready to drop onto a thumbdrive, optical disc, or whatever. –  quack quixote Jan 12 '10 at 22:03
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I've seen some people mention zip ties, and while they are nice looking, I don't like them so much anymore anymore. I've come to prefer twist ties. They're easy to remove (don't require a tool to do so) and they are also easy to modify (if you need to add additional cables to the bundle). I picked up a spool of it from the gardening section of menards that comes with a cutter... that's similar to this...

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Have you tried the "releasable" cable ties? They have a little tab you can pinch and it releases the tie. They work really well, and for short term bundling, try velcro ties. –  Joel Jan 13 '10 at 2:25
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Velcro, it's cheap, comes in different colors, removable and less likely to dig into wires. –  Chris S Feb 26 '10 at 4:46
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Digital camera, so that when you have to unplug or move things, you can put them back the way they were.

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I like to have the following to hand.

  • a laptop (WITH CHARGER, this is very important)
  • a 5 m Cat5/6 cable and a 2 m one too
  • one of those tasteless-but-useful keychain thing so your rack keys can't fall through AC grates
  • a trolley
  • a table and chairs
  • a multi-bit screw driver
  • a big heavy flat-head screw-driver that's so strong it can be used as a lever if needed
  • a label printer
  • a 'normal' printer
  • velcro cable ties
  • a floor-tile sucker/lifter
  • spare fibres
  • other spares (PSUs, memory, disks, whole servers if possible)
  • rack bolts/nuts
  • a CD pen
  • paper towels to mop up any spills that idiots who bring drinks into a data centre might spill
  • earplugs for when you're working but don't need to hear your phone
  • a decent-sized bin
  • storage cupboards for spares, etc.
  • a small clear pot to put fibre-end-caps into so they don't end up on the floor
  • a mobile/cell/handy-phone with WIRED headset so you can type with both hands
  • ideally a bar-code reader
  • also ideally a 'gurney' (a trolley with an LCD display, keyboard, mouse/trackpad and BUS-POWERED USB hard disk).

I know I've forgotten some things...

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+1 for the trolley alone (and a bonus point for the normal printer ;) –  Oskar Duveborn Mar 24 '11 at 17:33
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ear plugs - block out the fan noise.

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Critically important - water (maybe gatorade). It's a very dehydrating environment. Temperature varies greatly. Layered clothing, you may stand in a hot or cold area of high or low airflow. Keep your water in a proper container, both for real safety and to create the impression that you are behaving carefully (either to set a good example, or in case you are caught, depending on your position).

If you expect to spend extended periods in a server room, get earphones that act as earplugs. One headache from 18 hours in a server room makes them worth the money. Otherwise, earplugs if you're expecting an extended stay. Most data centers are under the OSHA requirement for ear protection, but demand earplugs anyway - take a sound reading in the worst spot and remind that the OSHA regs were meant for 8 hours, and you could spend far longer.

Hardware and tools that you expect to need, of course - this goes for any job. This includes cellphones and other communication devices as needed. I've seen more than one server room in which cellphones didn't work.

A second person. A server room is a work site that can experience accidents like any other. I don't often hear of fatal accidents in server rooms. But I have witnessed several incidents that could have been fatal if there were no one else around. I've seen (or been within earshot of) plenty of incidents where no one was injured and a machine was destroyed, just due to luck.

A camera. I disagree that a cell phone camera is good enough - useless in my experience. A camera is important for data center work, but you need to take a picture of a machine that's clear enough to read serial numbers, hostname stickers, model numbers, etc in one shot. A cellphone camera usually can't take a picture of a serial number sticker - to get it in focus, you need to move so far back you don't have enough resolution to read it. Take a picture of cables before doing work, of unexpected or surprising fault lights. Take a picture of cables after doing work, so you can check the picture before walking back to the data center.

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I'm looking for stuff I leave there, not what's in my go-bag.

The only thing that should be stored in the server room is servers. Everything else should be stored nearby, but removed from the server room when not needed.


To add a bit to my above statement. Colo's and Server rooms are two different animals. With colos you generally have your cage space and that is it - would be nice if they provided lockers for client use but they generally don't.

Before we shutdown our colo we had a crash cart with the following:

  • Multiple screw driver sets - torx, phillips, flat head in a wide range of sizes
  • Battery Powered Drill with screw bits (and the charger)
  • CD Case with all needed software for all systems at that site
  • BERT tester
  • Cable making supplies - coil of cat5e, crimper/cutter tool, tester, tips
  • Small trashcan
  • Small key safe with keys for all the equipment front panel locks
  • Collection of spare screws
  • Spare lock box for tape transport
  • Leatherman Multitool (most useful!)
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Some have server rooms that aren't conveniently located near additional secured storage space. I'd rather have equipment safely stored in a cabinet in the server room itself than trekking across a building because I forgot something I'd never use outside the room... –  ceejayoz Jan 12 '10 at 21:17
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Unfortunately, my servers are in a colo facility an hour from the office. Some things I just don't want to haul back and forth. Plus, I leave for there from different places: the office, my house, bars (when I'm really unlucky), etc. Otherwise, I'd be with you. –  Bill Weiss Jan 12 '10 at 21:36
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If you have space in your rack, I wouldn't be surprised if some company offers 19" lockable drawers... –  Michael Stum Feb 26 '10 at 5:31
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Quality tools. Cheap tools like screwdrivers that the tips shear off when you're trying to remove that overtightened screw can ruin your day, especially if you're at the colo in a downtown urban centre at 3am, and there is nowhere within a hour drive (or commute) to get a replacement. They don't have to be top of the line machinist tools, but decent quality, not a bigbox / department store set bought on sale for $4.99. Wiha, Wera, Snap-On, and Klein Tools are recommended brands.

And the right tools, that actually fit. Needing to open a case where the screws have been "stripped" due to screwdriver slippage, or using the wrong screwdriver is an act of unnecessary frustration.

  • Notebook and pen/pencils.
  • serial cable, USB to serial adapter (for laptop), null-modem connector, and serial to RJ-45 adapter for routers and switches (a cheap multi-cable for the DIY types)
  • cross-over ethernet cable (if not covered by previous)
  • install / recovery media, and portable hard drive for storage / backup
  • nut drivers, particularly for rack screw / nuts that can need more torque to loosen
  • bottled water (for colo); not a diuretic like soda or coffee, which forces bio-breaks
  • spare power cord - I always seem to end up short
  • compact keyboard
  • Cat-5/6 cable, plus RJ-45 connectors, and crimper, wire cutters, utility knife
  • Multi-tool, again quality one, e.g. Leatherman or Gerber
  • phone list / directory of contacts
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After years of replacing cordless screwdrivers because the NiCad battery wore out, the Flashcell cordless screwdriver is very welcomed.

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A USB keyboard for those times you have to hit a function key for the machine to continue booting.

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To that, I'd add OS repair CDs, screwdriver kits in case of hardware malfunction, etc. :-) –  Chris Jester-Young May 1 '09 at 13:46
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If it's an internal server room, I'd put above anything else a bin.

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We have and use "community" fold-up tables and chairs in our colo areas. Provides the work surface, a place to sit and takes up little room when stowed.

Also a light jacket for when it's 90 degrees outside, you're wearing shorts and a t-shirt and you end up spending most of the night in a 65 degree server room.

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That's why the tenants do it themselves. A couple of cheap chairs and a table fit in-between racks pretty easily. –  Keith Stokes Jan 15 '10 at 0:23
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Tums and a bottle of Knob Creek as some setups hurt.

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What the hell is Knob Creek? Where I live that sounds like some sort of homo-erotic horror movie (I'm thinking... a pornographic version of Wolf Creek) –  Mark Henderson Apr 27 '11 at 0:49
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Depending on how long your task will extend to (prepare for the unexpected!), I'd also add a cellphone, snacks, and (if you smoke) smokes. :-)

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If you have ever witnessed entire structures burnt down because of a single cigarette butt, you will know smoking is highly prohibited in data centres. –  icelava May 1 '09 at 14:36
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lol The data centres I've been to have (somewhat) easy access to the outside. Of course, inside is no-smoking! :-P –  Chris Jester-Young May 1 '09 at 14:37
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A jumper or coat.

I have spent several hours in very cold, air-conditioned server rooms.

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