Several leading hardware vendors have confirmed they are investing heavily in developing alternatives to the lead-based solders used in their servers and infrastructure equipment ahead of a 2010 review of the EU's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive that could see the practice banned.
As reported earlier this month the RoHS directive, which bans the use of six hazardous chemicals often found in IT equipment, includes an exemption that allows lead to continue to be used in servers, storage equipment and some network devices until a review of the directive in 2010.
Stuart Brown, service architect at networking consultancy 3net, recommended that with the exemption for infrastructure equipment likely to be terminated some time after 2010 all firms should check that their IT suppliers have clear development and support plans in place for transitioning towards lead-free servers.
Some firms have experienced difficulties with maintenance and sourcing spare parts after various firewall appliances and other products were banned following RoHS introduction this summer, he said.
Leading vendors responded that they were investing in developing an alternative to lead solders and that they would have clear migration and support plans in place if and when existing products are banned.
Lena Pripp-Kovac, head of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Dell, said that the current exemption was necessary as there was still no viable alternative to lead solders.
Experts agreed that with alternative solders made from a mix of tin, silver and copper having a higher melting point than lead there is an increased risk of damaging multilayered circuit boards during the manufacturing process. There are also concerns that so called tin whiskers, whereby tin grows under certain conditions, have also led to concerns about the long term reliability of equipment featuring solders incorporating tin.
But Pripp-Kovac said that despite these difficulties progress was being made – helped by the recent experience of transitioning away from lead in desktops. "Moving away from lead is part of our material restriction programme," she said. "We're not sitting and waiting for the regulations. We're trying to shift away from lead and… have a substantial testing programme underway."
Similarly, a spokesman for EMC said that while the "unique fluctuations in temperature and power that these types of products endure" makes finding a replacement difficult the company had a major R&D programme in place to do just that.
Meanwhile, Bruno Zago, environmental manager for HP in the UK, said the company also had a major R&D programme underway to develop an alternative to lead servers and he insisted the investment is necessary to avoid compliance headaches in a few years time.
"Lead-based solders will be reviewed in 2010 and if a viable solution is found then a date will be put in place for either a full ban or a lower agreed limit on the amount of lead you can use," he said. "At HP we expect a full ban to be announced in 2010 and we are working based on that assumption."
The vendors also insisted a ban would cause no real disruption to customer support. "We're already looking at what the transition phase will look like," said Pripp-Kovac. "It will be like any other product roadmap – we don’t stop support of products as soon as we stop shipping them and the same will be true for this. It won't be any more difficult for customers than any other product transition."
Zago insisted HP had similar plans in place. "We will know where a server's design has had to change and a lot of work will be done to ensure backwards compatability with legacy versions and that plenty of spares are available going forward," he added.
However, it remains unclear if all hardware vendors are genuinely preparing for an end to the current exemption regarding lead in servers.
IBM declined to comment for this story, while at least one other major vendor spoken to by GBN was of the mistaken belief that the RoHS exemptions were indefinite.
It seems that environmentally conscious IT directors keen to see lead free servers will have to ask their own suppliers if they are seriously working on an alternative to lead solders, or whether they instead plan to again lobby the EU in a few years time with fresh complaints that such solders remains unviable.
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