Data center operators face an increasingly hostile landscape. As investment in cloud, AI, and big data analysis continues to grow, the facilities hosting these critical workloads become bigger targets to security threats. The value of information housed in data centers opens the pathway to potential damage caused by an unplanned outage.

Physical data center breaches remain rare. Between 2006 and 2016, there were only five reported physical incidents of sabotage or theft of equipment from a data center. By contrast, there were dozens — almost hundreds — of significant data breaches as a result of cyberattacks in the first half of 2023 alone. Nevertheless, researchers from the Uptime Institute note in a recent report, when it comes to physical security and data centers, “a lack of incidents across the industry is a sign of success,” not of a lack of credible threats.

The report adds that the “likelihood of sabotage has grown, the surface area for attacks has expanded, and the methods used by intruders are increasingly sophisticated.” Not only that, but there is a tendency for data center physical security to focus on the first few lines of defense: perimeter security and controlling admission to the site. While these measures are essential, they don’t preclude the need for attention and investment into securing the data center white space and the hardware it contains.

Physical security precautions have proven effective in keeping outsiders at bay, but the greatest and most underrated risk to the white space is intentional sabotage by an inside actor.

The outer perimeter and the insider threat

Protecting your data center assets from physical interference in the white space and managing vulnerability to insider and outsider interference is vital.

Once access to data center hardware is gained, the capacity to do immense damage is great — both to the company whose digital assets have been tampered with and the data center owner's reputation. In this industry, companies live or die by their ability to maintain uptime. That means success is only achieved for businesses that can consistently provide digital services. Pull the right cable to cause an outage at the right (or wrong?) moment and you can pull the plug on a company's share price.

Looking at the multiple layers of physical security that surround data centers, it’s easy to assume the systems are threat-proof, at least, relative to the value of what’s housed inside. Razor wires, locked gates, armed security personnel, and the use of biometrics are all common precautions, even at an average retail colocation facility.

Still, people underestimate the macroeconomic conditions that could incentivize an attack against a data center. The threat of corporate espionage is an accepted risk in highly competitive industries, especially those undergoing disruption.

For example, the current investment in AI is massive and widespread. Generative AI (GenAI), specifically, has the potential to be the most economically and socially impactful technology of the decade. There has been a great deal of data center capacity leased in the last three months in order to host GenAI workloads, and many of the key players in the space are gearing up for the next phase of the AI arms race. Any time a phenomenon starts being referred to as an “arms race,” there are going to be vested interests willing to engage in sabotage to get ahead. And, that’s why the economic incentives of physically interfering with data centers should not be underestimated.

However, physical breaches remain a highly preventable threat if data center operators are willing to take the appropriate precautions. With multiple layers of physical security, identity confirmation, and authentication, it’s virtually impossible for an outsider to gain unauthorized access to physical data center assets.

The same cannot be said for an insider, however — someone with access to the outer perimeter, the facility building, and the data hall itself.

This is why the final layer, caging and containment, is the most important. It’s the last line of defense to prevent equipment from being destroyed or tampered with and the layer that grants the customer the greatest control. The only way to get in a server cage is if the customer who owns what's in it wants you there.

Securing the white space

As imperative as perimeter security is to safeguarding the physical assets inside of data centers, security measures within the white space itself may be even more essential. There may be multiple layers of physical security outside the white space, but, inside the data hall, there are only two things standing between an intruder and the servers: the containment aisle door and the cage.

This is especially important in retail colocation environments, where multiple clients can share a single data hall. Without effective caging solutions, access to the data hall at large can easily translate into opportunities to sabotage the hardware hosted there — intentionally or not.

Successfully deploying caging solutions to secure your white space is a pivotal part of the installation process.

Data center caging impacts a variety of infrastructure within the white space. If the cage extends into the flooring, it can interfere with power distribution unit (PDU) cables. If it goes into the ceiling, it can impact fiber optic cabling and fire suppression systems.

Having a caging partner who understands the makeup of the entire white space environment means you can take a more agile, intelligent approach to caging design. Housing data center assets inside a trusted caging environment is just as important as colocating those assets with a provider that offers strong perimeter security.