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For good data center physical security, build a bunker

MSApple didn't want another fire or busted water pipe damaging computer systems, so it built its data center in a bunker.

LAS VEGAS -- Data center physical security isn't just about keeping bad people out with biometrics and retinal scans. It's also about keeping out the fires, floods and hurricanes that can ravage your facility -- and your data.

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That's one thing Kevin Archer found out the hard way. Archer is the chief technology officer (CTO) for MSApple Technologies, an affiliate company of Akron, Ohio-based accounting firm Moore Stephens Apple. Disaster has struck the company twice. The first time, a tenant in the same building as MSApple's data center had a fire in its office. Even though the flames were contained, smoke traveled through the HVAC system into the data center, destroying some of the company's computer systems.

A few years later, a water pipe outside the company offices burst. The finance department on the ground floor was flooded, but the company was actually lucky -- the water stopped three feet from the data center. Still, it prompted the CEO to start asking the CTO hypothetical questions: What if water had gotten into the data center? Could the company sustain that type of loss, especially during the busy tax season?

So MSApple commissioned a study and determined that between ordering new equipment, cabling the data center, and restoring and testing all applications, it could take up to 13 weeks and $250,000 to get the data center back up and running. That's three months of IT service that MSApple couldn't do without, as the company wouldn't have been able to operate at capacity from remote systems.

Not everyone can afford to build a backup data center. And even when they do, companies don't always build the data centers far enough apart, leaving open the possibility of a natural disaster that can take them both out. Exhibit No. 1: companies in New Orleans that lost main and backup data centers during Hurricane Katrina.

Data center physical security in a bunker

So then the question becomes: How do you secure your primary, and only, data center facility from factors like inclement weather or a building's poor plumbing?

After plenty of research, Archer found his solution -- build a bunker. It's not underground in an undisclosed location, and vice president Dick Cheney does not hide there on occasion, but it's a secure, 2,000-square-foot data center that provides protection from water, fire, smoke, dust and power interruption, all the while maintaining the temperature and humidity the data center systems need to run. And it sits within the company's current office building.

"The most important thing they have learned from this issue is that, with this solution, they have peace of mind," said Joseba Calvo, executive vice president of AST North America, the company that built the bunker for MSApple, during the AFCOM Data Center World conference in Las Vegas last month. "Now they know the equipment and data is secure from any physical hazards. Now all the customers who come to the offices to do paperwork -- they always show them the data center to help restore their reputation and show that the equipment is really secure."

The room at MSApple is a modular, steel-walled data center that is like a room in a room, so the company could slide it into its existing office space where the old data center was. The MSApple room was built in a week and cost about $40,000, according to Calvo. Configuring the entire data center, including setting up systems, power, cooling and networking, took about three weeks and cost a total of $110,000. MSApple did not seek a tier certification from The Uptime Institute; Calvo said the company was satisfied with AST's past work with IBM. This is one of AST's products in its Smart Shelter line. It can also build free-standing data centers. AST claims the rooms are water tight, fire resistant up to two hours, have "anti-static" raised floors and can shield against electromagnetic shocks. Some of the claims are backed by U.S. and international certifications. They have PDUs with redundant circuits, double-conversion UPSs, high-density cooling designed to ASHRAE requirements, remote monitoring systems, fire prevention and detection systems, and access systems through magnetic cards and/or fingerprint.

An added bonus to the bunker, Calvo said, was that MSApple was able to improve its power efficiency. Because the new data center is so well sealed, there is no air leakage and therefore less power and air-conditioning consumption.

For MSApple, the directive to physically foolproof the data center came from the top, but in many companies, data center managers have a tough time convincing executives, who control the purse strings, that data center physical security is worth spending money on.

Corey Ernst is a data center facilities manager for YRC Worldwide Inc., a transportation service provider based in Overland Park, Kan. In the company's Kansas City data center, Ernst said they've got water lines running above the server room.

"There must be some kind of shroud you can put around it," he said. He added that the cafeteria is on the floor above the data center, and he's worried about the waste line breaking and leaking into the server room, as well. "You have to convince management that it's important," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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