Physical security in the data centre has traditionally meant locked doors, access cards, biometric finger scans and video surveillance but increasingly these measures are being supplemented with remote connectivity solutions.

Marc Marazzi, Avocent discusses how these tools can provide secure remote physical access to the data centre with its role in enhancing logical security, auditing and reporting, and in alerting management layers.


Generally speaking, the IT infrastructure is exposed to two main types of risk:

  • Loss or alteration of data;
  • Discontinuation of service.

The threats that constitute these risks typically come from one or more of the following sources:

Nature of threat Likelihood of impact
Human error 55%
Physical security problems 20%
Dishonest employees 10%
Disgruntled employees 6%
Viruses 4%
Other reasons 4%
Outside attacks 1%

(Source: IBM)

The role of any security strategy should be to evaluate the above risks and reduce their potential impact on the company's IT assets as much as possible. To reduce these threats, IT administrators in the data centre environment should implement a physical security plan that makes servers accessible to only authorised personnel. This rigid approach limits the type of access available to individual users and provides administrators with a greater level of control.

Security strategy components

Multiple data centre locations and geographically dispersed IT administrators increase the importance of a sound security strategy which establishes guidelines and responsibilities to protect the information assets of a company.

Physical security

Apart from physical theft and tampering, security must also include the protection of valuable servers and IT equipment from accidental damage and spillages. In some rack-based server environments a 'crash cart' is used to resolve problems; a cart holding a keyboard, video display and mouse. When a server crashes, the technician identifies the faulting server, plugs in the crash cart and takes local control of the server.

These work environments are uncomfortable and insecure. They also result in higher support costs from reduced productivity; and increased risk of personal injury from rolling a cart through and around racks.

IT management is increasingly facing growth in very controlled environments - areas where access is restricted to registered or authorised users - especially as data centres increase in size and are in different geographic 'lights out' locations. Authorised personnel may be required to enter and exit using special issue access cards and biometric finger scans. Video surveillance cameras in the building may monitor all activities in strategic locations.

Increasingly IT managers are supplementing physical security strategy by providing secure, remote access and control of data centre servers and devices to authorised personnel no matter where they or the devices are located.

Logical security

Logical security strategies require IT managers to identify and authenticate users. User IDs need to be established to identify the person connecting to the system and the resources they are able to access. It also involves defining the administrative authority.

An important issue in managing servers and devices is that some may have their own unique management interface, authentication and password lists and IT managers need to find a way of unifying their management.

Auditing and reporting

All effective auditing and reporting systems include the ability to track user access to data centre devices so that administrators can see who has accessed what device, when, and, indeed, what IP address they used. As noted in the introduction, sixteen per cent of data centre security threats are the result of disgruntled or dishonest employees and audit trails of activities act as a strong deterrent to those types of threats.

Another useful facility in administrator audit mode is stealth control which enables the administrator to watch activities and changes on a server or device in real-time, without the user being aware and take immediate action to disable the user, if required. Again, the ability to centralise the management of these systems is paramount to enable the administrator to act swiftly in the event of a threat.

User applications influence physical security

In the main, there are two types of user access requirements to the data centre. The first type is real-time access, where end users are working full-time on computers and require complete bandwidth access. This includes test labs, demo labs and designer environments. Apart from physically securing the servers, the real-time access scenario also has requirements for logical security, auditing and reporting, and alert management.

The second user access type is administrative-level access. IT administrators are faced with the daily challenge of managing many different and distributed systems across the enterprise. In many cases the administrator needs to have full administrative-level access to servers and devices no matter where they are located.

Every administrative function conducted on a target device, including full-power recycling, watching screens as a machine boots-up and access to BIOS settings, needs to be conducted as if the target device is in the same room. This level of access is required both locally and remotely.

It is important that the administrator controls all administrative-level access to servers and devices. Device-level rights must be assigned based on a user's name so that administrators have access to more devices than, for example, an entry-level technician. Auditing and reporting of all activity is also important to keep track of 'who does what' within the network infrastructure.

The challenge is more complex when administrative-level access to secure servers and devices is required from multiple remote locations. Not only should the links be encrypted and secure, the actual access needs to be controlled through common authentication and tracking procedures.

Remote management and physical security

There are some very clear requirements for effective management of physical data centre security. The administrator needs the ability to locate servers and devices in a physically secure area.

Ideally, the administrator should have full access to all of these servers and devices and conduct any configuration or administrative function without having to visit the server room. At the same time, control would be maintained over logical security, auditing and reporting, and alert management.

Remote management tools negate the need for countless keyboards, monitors and mice within the corporate data centre - providing single console BIOS-level control and access over servers and other connected network devices from local and remote locations.

This is facilitated by connecting directly to the ports of target devices, enabling operators and users to access multiple computers as if they were sitting directly in front of each machine. Although many server management functions can be performed remotely through network management systems tools, some more fundamental levels of server configuration can only be accomplished through remote connectivity tools.

In recent years the scope of these technologies has expanded beyond the local control of multiple racks of servers over a proprietary network. Control of target devices from any location is now available over standard protocols such as an IP network and has expanded to allow access and control of serial devices such as headless servers, routers, power strips and environmental systems. Additionally, administrators can now maintain and troubleshoot all their servers and serial devices from anywhere using one screen and management software.

The simplification of management through a single-seat scenario allows for better management of firewalls, host and network-based intrusion monitors and access control - vital parts of the security landscape for any data centre manager.