Beware The Electro-Magnetic Data Center Threat

A data center strong enough to fend off solar storms or nuclear weapons could be the next requirement on your RFP.

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No matter if your company's data resides in a private data center, a co-located facility, or a cloud service provider, you want it to be as safe as possible. But there's one danger that almost no data center protects against: an electro-magnetic pulse. EMPs can occur naturally in the environment in the form of solar flares. They can also be triggered by people in what's often referred to as an "e-bomb."

Either way, an overabundance of EMPs will render electronics completely useless. To counter this potential threat, one recently opened data center in Pennsylvania claims to protect against both manmade and naturally occurring EMPs. The owner of the facility has not disclosed the building materials it used, but it hopes to fend off any impending solar storm or nuclear event. So are EMPs something that enterprise IT decision makers need to consider?

According to some experts, the odds of an electronics-disabling EMP caused by massive solar flares will be as high as one in eight by the year 2020. In fact, solar storms have knocked out electronics on a smaller scale in the past. Additionally, there have been several solar flare "near misses" that could have caused massive EMP effects had the Earth taken a slightly more direct hit.

To add even more concern, the use of electromagnetic pulse as a military tactic has grown exponentially. The ability to explode a nuclear bomb at just the right altitude in order to knock out power grids and destroy electronics without taking lives is becoming more popular for military forces around the globe with access to nuclear arsenals. There are also forms of non-nuclear e-bombs that virtually any enemy could create and deploy.

Given all the possibilities of an EMP occurring within our lifetime, I actually find it shocking that so much of the US electrical grid -- as well as its public and private computing infrastructure -- lacks the ability to deflect EMP threats of all types. When we discuss redundancy from a high-availability and fault-tolerant perspective, many tend to ignore the elephant in the room that is EMP. And though it may not be the biggest threat to consider when designing your company's IT infrastructure, in my opinion, it's the biggest threat most companies are completely ignoring today.

The good news is that some data center and cloud service providers are beginning to realize that there is a market for EMP-protected data centers. One such small data center was recently announced in the Northeastern US. According to the press release, EMP GRID Services LLC built a specially designed data center for a Fortune 500 insurance company that "required an ultra-secure, high-availability, disaster recovery facility that could resist enhanced threats posed by EMP, HEMP and IEMI to be operationally resilient."

Given that insurance companies are beginning to recognize and counter such a threat, it is likely that other global businesses will follow suit. The question remains, however, with regard to how these EMP-proof data centers actually protect against electro-magnetic attacks. And, just as importantly, how much do they cost?

In any case, you'll likely find more and more EMP-proof data centers cropping up in the coming years. Eventually, I'd love to get to the point where this becomes the norm for all data centers around the globe. If we don't figure out how to protect our electronics and data from a threat like an EMP, we may quickly find ourselves back in the Stone Age.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Froehlich, President, West Gate Networks

President, West Gate Networks

As a highly experienced network architect and trusted IT consultant with worldwide contacts, particularly in the United States and Southeast Asia, Andrew Froehlich has nearly two decades of experience and possesses multiple industry certifications in the field of enterprise networking. Froehlich has participated in the design and maintenance of networks for State Farm Insurance, United Airlines, Chicago-area schools and the University of Chicago Medical Center. He is the founder and president of Loveland, Colo.-based West Gate Networks, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and data center build outs. The author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex, he is a regular contributor to multiple enterprise IT related websites and trade journals with insights into rapidly changing developments in the IT industry.

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