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Data center robbery leads to new thinking on security

Hosting firm's CEO says violent intrusion should be a warning to data center managers

January 7, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Last October, a data center in Chicago owned by Web hosting and collocation vendor C I Host Inc. was robbed by two masked men, who pistol-whipped a lone IT staffer working the graveyard shift and then held him hostage for two hours while stealing computer equipment.

It's rare for data centers and their employees to be attacked in such a brutal way. Typically, IT facilities are designed with physical security in mind, featuring protections such as steel doors, security guards and electronically controlled access mechanisms.

But the armed robbery at the Chicago data center has changed how Christopher Faulkner, CEO of Irving, Texas-based C I Host, views security. Faulkner said this month that he no longer thinks data centers are as secure as IT managers believe they are, and that he sees what happened at his company as a warning of what may lie ahead for other organizations.

"The second someone crosses the line to armed robbery – [risking] a 25- to 50-year prison sentence – to steal some servers, we're in different realm of security now," he said.

When Faulkner tours other data centers, he looks at their security measures with a much different eye than he did before the robbery at his facility. He imagines someone – a robber, or a terrorist – who is determined to steal or destroy the equipment there.

Most data centers don't have metal detectors or bomb-detection systems, according to Faulkner, who also said that he has never been patted down by a security guard when entering a data center. "How do they know I don't have five handguns on me, strapped down with explosives?" he asked. "They don't know."

There have been a few scattered reports of robberies at other data centers, including one last year in London. But William DiBella, president of AFCOM, an Orange, Calif.-based professional association for data center managers, said that he sees little chance of robberies becoming a trend at IT facilities.

Data centers are far from a low-hanging fruit for robbers, DiBella contended. "Most data centers are very well-hidden and secure," he said. Moreover, he said, companies simply aren't going to risk intrusions, for an obvious reason: "Lose data and you can lose the business."

Nonetheless, Faulkner thinks that data center operators really haven't planned for the worst possible occurrences, such as terrorist attacks. "Data center security, in the past five years, has been about the show for the customer," he said. "If somebody is committed to dying, it's going to be very hard to stop them."

Since the robbery in Chicago, Faulkner has added new security measures, most of which he declined to specify. The hosting firm, which has two other data centers in Dallas and Los Angeles, also now trains its staffers on how to respond if a similar incident happens again. He said the training can be boiled down to this message: "fully cooperate" with any intruders.

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