How Electromagnetic Interference Threatens Data Centres

Your data centre takes physical measures to stop intruders and implements security systems to ward off malicious hackers. But could it survive an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack from radio frequency weapons, nuclear detonations or even a solar storm?

Lifehacker's coverage of Data Center World 2014 is presented by the Microsoft Cloud, providing flexible enterprise cloud solutions for business.

While that might sound like an unlikely scenario, it's within the realms of possibility. "Truck-mounted devices are certainly available for about $200,000," Michael Caruso said during a panel discussion on electromagnetic interference issues at Data Center World 2014 in Las Vegas. "You could build a truck-mounted device and it could take out a city block worth of electronics in a single burst from some distance away."

A nuclear device detonated above ground -- referred to as a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) incident -- could cause even more widespread damage. "A high altitude nuclear detonation could create a pulse that takes out the power grid and also damage data centres," said Thomas Popik, chairman of the Foundation for Resilient Societies.

Caruso, director of government and specialty business development for ETS-Lindgren, noted that the issue was not often discussed when planning new data centres. "In current data centre designs, electromagnetic concerns are something that really have not been addressed very much."

Yet our increasing use of data centres to manage all sorts of essential services, from utilities to finance, means the issue should be considered. "There's an increased reliance on private data centres to keep our critical infrastructure up and running," Caruso said.

"Both narrowband and wideband energy is created with these EMP events," Caruso said. "Modern electronics and modern data centres are not addressing EMP issues at this point. Even an EMP attack from a handheld device isn't survivable.

Electromagnetic interference is typically measured in volts per meter (V/m). IT equipment is generally certified to withstand a pulse of 10 V/m. However, since a targeted attack could result in 10,000 V/m or more, that's effectively no use. "There's a general lack of awareness of how serious this can be," said Dr George Baker, CEO of BAYCOR. "The entire upper atmosphere effectively becomes a giant phased array antenna."

The problem isn't insurmountable. "There are things that can be done and there are protections that can be put in place," Caruso said, including protected enclosures for servers and shielding for entrance doors. However, that isn't cheap. Caruso estimates that it would increase build costs for a greenfields site by around 5 per cent, while retrofitting an existing location could be even more expensive.

Many data centre managers don't want to spend that kind of money. "The very common reply is 'it can't happen'," Caruso said. "The three of us are here to tell you it can happen, it will happen and it has happened.

Pulse picture from Shutterstock


    Of course, when the Big One happens and a solar flare from the sun fries everything, it doesn't really matter if the data centre was protected or not since anything non-military won't be in a condition to access it.

    There goes everyone's Game Of Thrones episodes...

    ...and the gear to watch them on...

    I guess everyone will just have to read how it ends.

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