A Guide to Physical Security for Data Centers

July 26, 2012 3 Comments »
A Guide to Physical Security for Data Centers

The aim of physical data center security is largely the same worldwide, barring any local regulatory restrictions: that is, to keep out the people you don’t want in your building, and if they do make it in, then identify them as soon as possible (ideally also keeping them contained to a section of the building). The old adage of network security specialists, that “security is like an onion” (it makes you cry!) because you need to have it in layers built up from the area you’re trying to protect, applies just as much for the physical security of a data center.

There are plenty of resources to guide you through the process of designing a highly secure data center that will focus on building a “gold standard” facility capable of hosting the most sensitive government data. For the majority of companies, however, this approach will be overkill and will end up costing millions to implement.

When looking at physical security for a new or existing data center, you first need to perform a basic risk assessment of the data and equipment that the facility will hold according to the usual impact-versus-likelihood scale (i.e., the impact of a breach of the data center versus the likelihood of that breach actually happening). This assessment should then serve as the basis of how far you go with the physical security. It is impossible to counter all potential threats you could face, and this is where identification of a breach, then containment, comes in. By the same token, you need to ask yourself if you are likely to face someone trying to blast their way in through the walls with explosives!

There are a few basic principles that I feel any data center build should follow, however:

  • Low-key appearance: Especially in a populated area, you don’t want to be advertising to everyone that you are running a data center. Avoid any signage that references “data center” and try to keep the exterior of the building as nondescript as possible so that it blends in with the other premises in the area.
  • Avoid windows: There shouldn’t be windows directly onto the data floor, and any glazing required should open onto common areas and offices. Use laminate glass where possible, but otherwise make sure windows are double-glazed and shatter resistant.
  • Limit entry points: Access to the building needs to be controlled. Having a single point of entry for visitors and contacts along with a loading bay for deliveries allows you to funnel all visitors through one location where they can be identified. Loading-bay access should be controlled from security or reception, ideally with the shutter motors completely powered down (so they can’t be opened manually either). Your security personnel should only open the doors when a pre-notified delivery is arriving (i.e., one where security has been informed of the time/date and the delivery is correctly labelled with any internal references). Of course all loading-bay activity should also be monitored by CCTV.
  • Anti-passback and man-traps: Tailgating (following someone through a door before it closes) is one of the main ways that an unauthorized visitor will gain access to your facility. By implementing man-traps that only allow one person through at a time, you force visitors to be identified before allowing access. And anti-passback means that if someone tailgates into a building, it’s much harder for them to leave.
  • Hinges on the inside: A common mistake when repurposing an older building is upgrading the locks on doors and windows but leaving the hinges on the outside of the building. This makes is really easy for someone to pop the pins out and just take the door off its hinges (negating the effect of that expensive lock you put on it!).
  • Plenty of cameras: CCTV cameras are a good deterrent for an opportunist and cover one of the main principles of security, which is identification (both of a security breach occurring and the perpetrator). At a minimum you should have full pan, tilt and zoom cameras on the perimeter of your building, along with fixed CCTV cameras covering building and data floor entrances/exits. All footage should be stored digitally and archived offsite, ideally in real time, so that you have a copy if the DVR is taken during a breach.
  • Make fire doors exit only (and install alarms on them): Fire doors are a requirement for health and safety, but you should make sure they only open outward and have active alarms at all times. Alarms need to sound if fire doors are opened at any time and should indicate, via the alarm panel, which door has been opened; it could just be someone going out for a cigarette, but it could also be someone trying to make a quick escape or loading up a van! On the subject of alarms, all doors need to have  alarms and be set to go off if they are left open for too long, and your system should be linked to your local police force, who can respond when certain conditions are met.
  • Door control: You need granular control over which visitors can access certain parts of your facility. The easiest way to do this is through proximity access card readers (lately, biometrics have become more common) on the doors; these readers should trigger a maglock to open. This way you can specify through the access control software which doors can be opened by any individual card. It also provides an auditable log of visitors trying to access those doors (ideally tied in with CCTV footage), and by using maglocks, there are no tumblers to lock pick, or numerical keypads to copy.
  • Parking lot entry control: Access to the facility compound, usually a parking lot, needs to be strictly controlled either with gated entry that can be opened remotely by your reception/security once the driver has been identified, or with retractable bollards. The idea of this measure is to not only prevent unauthorized visitors from just driving into your parking lot and having a look around, but also to prevent anyone from coming straight into the lot with the intention of ramming the building for access. You can also make effective use of landscaping to assist with security by having your building set back from the road, and by using a winding route into the parking lot, you can limit the speed of any vehicles. And large boulders make effective barriers while also looking nice!
  • Permanent security staff: Many facilities are manned with contract staff from a security company. These personnel are suitable for the majority of situations, but if you have particularly sensitive data or equipment, you will want to consider hiring your security staff permanently. A plus and minus of contract staff is that they can be changed on short notice (e.g., illness is the main cause of this). But it creates the opportunity for someone to impersonate your contracted security to gain access. You are also at more risk by having a security guard who doesn’t know your site and probably isn’t familiar with your processes.
  • Test, test and test again: No matter how simple or complex your security system, it will be useless if you don’t test it regularly (both systems and staff) to make sure it works as expected. You need to make sure alarms are working, CCTV cameras are functioning, door controls work, staff understands how visitors are identified and, most importantly, no one has access privileges that they shouldn’t have. It is common for a disgruntled employee who has been fired to still have access to a building, or for a visitor to leave with a proximity access card that is never canceled; you need to make sure your HR and security policies cover removing access as soon as possible. It’s only by regular testing and auditing of your security systems that any gaps will be identified before someone can take advantage of them.
  • Don’t forget the layers: Last, all security systems should be layered on each other. This ensures that anyone trying to access your “core” (in most cases the data floor) has passed through multiple checks and controls; the idea is that if one check fails, the next will work.

The general rule is that anyone entering the most secure part of the data center will have been authenticated at least four times:

1. At the outer door or parking entrance. Don’t forget you’ll need a way for visitors to contact the front desk.

2. At the inner door that separates the visitors from the general building staff. This will be where identification or biometrics are checked to issue a proximity card for building access.

3. At the entrance to the data floor. Usually, this is the layer that has the strongest “positive control,” meaning no tailgating is allowed through this check. Access should only be through a proximity access card and all access should be monitored by CCTV. So this will generally be one of the following:

  • A floor-to-ceiling turnstile. If someone tries to sneak in behind an authorized visitor, the door gently revolves in the reverse direction. (In case of a fire, the walls of the turnstile flatten to allow quick egress.)
  • A man-trap. Provides alternate access for equipment and for persons with disabilities. This consists of two separate doors with an airlock in between. Only one door can be opened at a time and authentication is needed for both doors.

4. At the door to an individual server cabinet. Racks should have lockable front and rear doors that use a three-digit combination lock as a minimum. This is a final check, once someone has access to the data floor, to ensure they only access authorized equipment.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list but should cover the basics of what you need to consider when building or retrofitting a data center. It’s also a useful checklist for auditing your colocation provider if you don’t run your own facility.

In the end, however, all physical security comes down to managing risks, along with the balance of “CIA” (confidentiality, integrity and access). It’s easy to create a highly secure building that is very confidential and has very high integrity of information stored within: you just encase the whole thing in a yard of concrete once it’s built! But this defeats the purpose of access, so you need a balance between the three to ensure that reasonable risks are mitigated and to work within your budget—everything comes down to how much money you have to spend.

About the Author

David Barker is technical director of 4D Data Centres. David (26) founded the company in 1999 at age 14. Since then he has masterminded 4D’s development into the full-fledged colocation and connectivity provider that it is today. As technical director, David is responsible for the ongoing strategic overview of 4D Data Centres’ IT and physical infrastructure. Working closely with the head of IT server administration and head of network infrastructure, David also leads any major technical change-management projects that the company undertakes.

Photo courtesy of S@veOurSm:)e

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