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The Stack Archive Feature

Terror: A very real threat to the data centre

Fri 12 May 2017 | Steven Norris

Europe B&W

Steve Norris calls for a critical focus on back-up and resilience as the data centre becomes an increasingly attractive target for terrorism…

Data centres offer many advantages over in-house data management. Not least the release of expensive office space, better energy management than is available in most conventional office buildings and a greater guarantee of continuity of service without unforeseen disruption.

These days, both wholly owned data centres and those offering colocation and third party services are becoming the norm for anyone in the financial services or TMT sectors. Local authorities and government departments are finding outsourcing data management is not only more convenient but saves valuable resource, too.

One key advantage of data centres is security; security of supply of power through links to unconnected alternative sources and standby capability, 24-hour supervision of servers in colocation, and physical security – literally protecting the premises where data is stored. As we move increasingly toward the cloud, this aspect is surely becoming more relevant.

One of the most catastrophic ways of inflicting long-term damage to our infrastructure would be to destroy data centres

Conventional wisdom is that the next great war will not be fought by troops on the ground. It will be fought in cyberspace and the evidence for that is already before us. Most large companies experience thousands of attacks by cyber criminals and state-sponsored deliberate saboteurs. The U.S. is currently convulsed by the argument as to how or whether their presidential election was influenced by Russian hackers. Trump doesn’t want to admit that his victory might have been aided in part by Vladimir Putin, but the evidence from the intelligence agencies is compelling.

Disturbing scenarios

Let’s consider a more damaging threat to our data security. Domestic terrorism is now an uncomfortable fact of life for Western democracies. Several of our European neighbours have suffered and we remember the atrocious events of 7 July 2005 when four suicide bombers inflicted appalling casualties on London. How long will it take for one such group to work out that one of the most catastrophic ways of inflicting long-term damage to our infrastructure would be to destroy data centres? The devastation caused could be enormous; hospitals that are unable to function, police services disrupted, public transport ground to a halt, and many other equally disturbing scenarios.

In my invariable experience, data centre security is a man at a gate who wants to see your ID. What use would he be if he were to be confronted by a determined terrorist? There are lessons here for both clients and owners of data centres. Clients – particularly government departments – need to think about the wisdom of concentrating too much data in any one place and focus on back-up and resilience. Meanwhile, operators must consider whether they need additional protections, such as bullet-proof glass around entry points and arrangements with local police services to call on armed back-up in an emergency.

I can see many readers thinking this is all a bit exaggerated and that this sort of thing is never going to happen and if it does it won’t be to them. All I can say is let’s hope they’re right, because if terrorists latch on to how easy data centres are as a target, and what real damage destroying them could inflict, every one of us will be the loser.

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