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The Server Room Explained and the Importance of Security

By: Ernest Sampera on August 16, 2019

Today’s data centers take security measures very seriously. This may come as a bit of a shock to companies accustomed to maintaining their own server room (or server closet in the case of smaller companies), but given the dangers associated with data breaches, colocation facilities aren’t about to take any chances with their customers’ valuable IT assets.

While data center physical security typically starts on the outside and works inward to create multiple layers of interconnected security measures, it’s worth looking at the core of any security strategy: the server room. This is the heart of any data center facility. Given its importance, it’s not surprising that data centers treat it almost as a facility within a facility. But their concern is well warranted. Security breaches of any kind could potentially cause their customers irreparable harm, perhaps even driving them out of business altogether.

What is a Server Room?

The server room is where all the computing equipment in a facility is stored and connected to the building’s power, cooling, and cabling infrastructure. There is no standard size requirement for a server room, but a typical data center could include anywhere from ten to several hundred (or even several thousand, in the case of a hyperscale facility) servers. Larger enterprise data centers might even have several server rooms. Although servers are stored in this room, data center technicians don’t typically manage anything beyond the physical cabling and installation here. Servers installed in a rack generally lack a display or input device, so they are usually accessed through an administrator system outside the server room.

What is in a Server Room?

A typical server room contains much of the infrastructure necessary to support computing network systems. This includes design features like environmental controls, fire suppression systems, cable management solutions, power system redundancies, and airflow planning. Server rooms could feature a raised floor that helps facilitate better cooling and cable management. 

Server racks house physical hardware such as the server units themselves and additional storage devices. Most racks are housed in cabinets that feature their own power circuits, cabling solutions, and security measures (such as locks equipped with biometric scanners). In addition to the cabinets and cabling, there’s also an array of routers, switches, and other network equipment that manages data traffic flowing in, out, and through the data center.

How Do You Maintain a Server Room?

Most servers are very sensitive to environmental conditions, so it’s important to monitor factors like temperature and humidity very carefully. Many data centers are incorporating sophisticated AI programs to manage their cooling infrastructure to make them even more efficient. Dust buildup can also create static electricity, which could potentially damage electronic components when it discharges. Accumulations of dust or other materials could also restrict airflow, causing servers to generate more heat and put even more pressure on the cooling infrastructure. Keeping airways and the area around servers clean is one of the most important routine tasks a data center needs to perform.

How Do You Keep the Server Room Secure?

Map Vulnerabilities

The physical layout of a server room should inform the security measures employed to protect it. Mapping out the characteristics of the room itself and the arrangement of the server racks can help to pinpoint potential vulnerabilities. This is especially important when determining where to place cameras and sensors. Without a map of the room, it’s easy to miss blind spots or place security assets in places where they won’t be as effective. A good risk assessment can also point out vulnerabilities related to infrastructure. Can, for instance, someone shut down the server room’s security measures by overloading a circuit or cutting a wire? Knowing where these vulnerabilities exist is the first step in strengthening them.

Lock the Doors

This might seem obvious, but installing locking devices and access controls on every entry point is a critical step in securing a data center’s server room. Ideally, access protocols should require multifactor authentication, in addition to requiring the visitor to check-in upon arrival. Two-factor authentication that includes biometric scanning of some kind (such as voice recognition or fingerprint scans) is becoming increasingly common, making it far more difficult for someone to steal or copy access credentials. Some facilities go a step further by controlling room access remotely, requiring even authorized personnel to be verified again by security staff.

Security Cameras

Given the value of proprietary data and IT equipment, everything that happens on the server room floor could potentially impact a company’s business. By keeping a visual record of all activity that takes place during every visit, data center security personnel can diagnose problems more easily and account for every variable in play. Cameras can be connected to other sensors in the room, ensuring that they only turn on when they’re needed. This saves security personnel significant time when reviewing archived footage as they don’t have to sift through (or store) hours of an empty server room. They can also detect tampering in the event of a physical security breach, sounding an alarm if the camera’s view doesn’t match the information coming from other sensors. The old movie trick of splicing in archived footage while infiltrating the data room may make for exciting fictional drama, but it won’t get would-be data thieves very far in reality.

Motion Sensors

Speaking of sensors, any server room should incorporate multiple forms of them into its security strategy. Motion detectors and vibration sensors can be configured to trigger alarms whenever unauthorized access occurs. They can also record any activity that occurs in the room, generating valuable security data that the facility can later analyze in order to better optimize their practices and prevent security breaches. Door contact sensors are another simple, but important security measure, sending out alerts whenever a door is opened without authorization. These sensors can also generate traffic data, providing accurate details about how many times people access the server room during a typical day. All of this data can be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of other security procedures and policies.

Secure Cabinet Racks

The entire purpose of securing the server room is to protect valuable data and hardware assets. That’s why server cabinets need to provide an additional layer of security. The front and back doors of a cabinet should be locked, requiring anyone seeking access to provide multiple forms of validation. Some facilities even incorporate biometric scanners at the rack level and require remote authorization to open the cabinet doors. When combined with other security measures, data centers can make it extremely difficult for anyone to access valuable IT assets without authorization.

Like the external security measures put in place to safeguard the facility from unauthorized access, server room security systems are tied into software that generates alerts, sounds alarms, and analyzes valuable data. Through this software, data centers can monitor activity, flag concerns, and identify ways to improve security protocols. With good server room security practices in place, colocation customers can rest easy knowing the facility will keep them informed of any unauthorized access and help them to better manage their assets in the future.

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