Monitoring Physical Threats in the Data Center

Dec. 4, 2006
Monitoring data center equipment is not enough; the surrounding environment must be viewed holistically and watched proactively for threats and intrusions

Rising power density and dynamic power variations are the two main drivers forcing changes in the monitoring methodology of IT and data-center environments. Blade servers have tremendously increased power densities and dramatically changed the power and cooling dynamics of the surrounding environments. Power-management technologies have pushed the ability of servers and communication equipment to vary power draw (and, therefore, heat dissipation) based on computational load.

Although it is common to have sophisticated monitoring and alerting capabilities in physical equipment such as the UPS, computer room air-conditioner (CRAC), and fire-suppression systems, other aspects of the physical environment are often ignored. Monitoring of equipment is not enough; the surrounding environment must be viewed holistically and watched proactively.

Physical threats to IT equipment include such things as power and cooling problems, human error or malice, fire, leaks, and air quality. Some of these are routinely monitored by built-in capabilities of power, cooling, and fire-suppression devices. However, certain kinds of physical threats in the data center do not present the user with pre-designed, built-in monitoring solutions. They include:

  • Air-quality threats to IT equipment (temperature, humidity).
  • Liquid leaks.
  • Human presence or unusual activity.
  • Air-quality threats to personnel (foreign airborne substances).
  • Smoke and fire from data-center hazards.

Various types of sensors can be used to provide early warning of trouble from these threats (see "Distributed Physical Threats" table). While the specific type, number, and placement of sensors may vary depending upon budget, threat risk, and the business cost of a breach, software systems must also be in place to manage the collected data and provide logging, trend analysis, intelligent-alert notifications, and automated corrective action, where possible.

Understanding the techniques for monitoring distributed physical threats enables the IT administrator to fill critical gaps in overall data-center security and keep physical security aligned with changing data-center infrastructure and availability goals.

This column was excerpted from "White Paper #102: Monitoring Physical Threats in the Data Center." Christian Cowan is a project manager and Chris Gaskins is product line manager, security & environmental, at Kingston, RI-based American Power Conversion (APC) Corp. (

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