Elevating Data Center Security with Rack-Level Electronic Access Control

June 4, 2019 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

From data centers housing information for a single organization to co-location data centers where multiple companies are hosting their data in one location, managing physical access at the rack level is becoming a significant challenge for facility managers.

By Mike Fahy, Commercial Product Manager, Electronic Access Solutions, Southco, Inc.

The endlessly growing mountains of personal, private data collected as part of routine transactions in our digital world continue to be a target for cyber criminals, who are moving beyond digital theft to the real world by targeting the servers that contain this data.

In 2017, the global average total cost of a data breach was $3.86 million—up 6.4% from the previous year. As the total cost of data breaches rise, the probability of an organization undergoing a data breach increases to a staggering 27.9%, with cybercrime ranking among the top three risks in the world by the World Economic Forum. These numbers are staggering and grow costlier every day, with data security breaches impacting governments, financial corporations, credit card companies, telecoms and healthcare organizations.

While firewalls, data encryption and antivirus/anti-malware tools handle the logical side of data protection and security, the physical heart of our digital world—also known as the data center—demands an exceptional level of protection, which can be achieved through a multi-layered approach to access control.

The Risks Keep Growing

As more personal information is pushed into the digital world, the risks and costs of data breaches continue to climb. According to the Breach Level Index, there were 1,765 publicly disclosed data breaches in 2017, leading to the successful theft or loss of 2.6 billion data records. To net it out, that equals approximately 4,949 records stolen every minute, or 82 records every second.

Organizations found in violation of data regulations face costly consequences. This situation dramatically elevates the importance of physical protection and security for data center managers. As more businesses, governments and organizations move toward cloud-based data storage, regulatory bodies are placing a stronger emphasis on data protection, making it more important than ever for data center managers to ensure that their security administration meets industry standards.

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) for instance, is regarded as one the most significant data protection standards in the IT industry today. PCI DSS is designed to protect the personal data of consumers and sets access control requirements for the entities that secure their information.

The regulation calls for monitoring and tracking personnel who might have physical access to data or systems that house cardholder data. This access should be appropriately controlled and restricted. Personnel covered under PCI DSS include full- and part-time employees, temporary employees, contractors and consultants who are physically present on the entity’s premises. The regulation also covers visitors, such as vendors and guests, who enter the facility for a short duration—usually up to one day.

But aren’t most data breaches completed by outside hackers breaking in through firewalls and not by people within an organization? The data says otherwise. In many cases, according to research conducted by IBM, the next attack could be from within an organization.

  • In 2015, 60 percent of all attacks were carried out by insiders—either those with malicious intent or those who served as inadvertent actors—by configuring a server incorrectly or leaving a port open on accident.

For the data center manager, the benefits of compliance are two-fold. Compliance not only protects the confidential nature of the data stored within the data center, it also protects the data center from regulatory penalties and the added cost of lost productivity that may occur as a result of a data breach.

Securing Assets with EAS

Managing access to the data center is becoming more complicated as data housing facilities continue to expand their hosting capabilities. From data centers housing information for a single organization to co-location data centers where multiple companies are hosting their data in one location, traditional key management is becoming a significant challenge for facility managers. Personnel from one or several organizations may access the data center at any given time, making key management increasingly difficult to track.

Data centers typically have multiple layers of security and access control: at the front door of the building, then a man trap to get past the lobby, then access control to get into each data center room, then possibly a cage depending on the data center structure.

However, it is at the rack level where data security and access control have the potential to fall short. If the servers are behind doors, there may not be physical locks securing those doors. And in older server farms, the server racks are wide open to all who have gained access to the cage that surrounds them. Thus, all of the physical layers of security can’t prevent unauthorized or malicious attempts to access unsecured servers. And if there is an attack or data breach, it becomes more difficult to track down the “who, what, when and where” of the breach if there is no rack-level security and audit trail in place.

Southco’s Modular H3-EM Electronic Locking Swinghandle series provides the flexibility to accommodate any reader technology as an integral component of the electronic lock.

In response, data center managers are focusing on extending physical security down to the rack level. Cabinet manufacturers are transitioning from traditional lock-and-key mechanisms to integrated solutions that combine electronic locking and monitoring capabilities for optimum security. These electronic access solutions (EAS) allow data center managers to easily incorporate intelligent locking throughout the facility—from its perimeter down to its servers—using the data center’s existing security system integrating with newer DCIM systems or through a separate, fully-networked system.

The remote monitoring capabilities offered by electronic access solutions help data center managers quickly identify a violation, enabling them to receive updates on their computer or via text or email on their personal devices. An electronic access solution is composed of three primary components: an access control reader or input device, an electromechanical lock and a controller system for restricting, monitoring and recording access. When designing an electronic access solution, it is important that the appropriate electronic lock is chosen for the specific enclosure and provides the intelligence, flexibility and security needed at the rack level.

Electronic locks are actuated by external access control devices, which validate user credentials and produce a signal that initiates the unlocking cycle. Electronic locks can be combined with any access control device from keypads to radio frequency identification (RFID) card systems, biometrics or wireless systems. The access control device can also be integrated into the electronic lock for a streamlined, integrated solution that requires minimal installation preparations.

Each time an electronic lock is actuated, an electronic “signature” is created which is captured to monitor access–either locally with visual indicators or audible alarms, or remotely over a computer network. The electronic signatures can be stored to create audit trails that can be viewed at any time, whether on- or off-site, to forensically reconstruct a series of access events. This electronic audit trail keeps track of cabinet access activity, including location, date, time, duration of access and specific user credentials.

These audit trails provide data center managers with an additional resource: They can track the amount of time a server rack door is opened in order to monitor maintenance and service activity. If a server rack is scheduled for activity that should take 30 minutes, but the audit trail shows the door was open for several hours, management can find out why the delay occurred and exercise better management of service personnel and costs for service.

This audit trail can be used to demonstrate compliance with data protection regulations and allows data center managers to immediately identify and respond to security breaches or forensically reconstruct events leading to a violation. Remote management and real-time monitoring eliminates the need for on-site staffing and reduces costs associated with managing data center security.

Support for Multifactor Authentication

When designing a new installation or retrofit, it is important to select an electronic lock based on the depth of intelligence and level of protection required.

Many EAS suppliers offer a range of electronic locking solutions designed to make implementing rack-level security relatively simple and cost-effective. These include robust cabinet locks integrated into locking door handles that are self-contained, modular devices designed to provide multifactor authentication in order to supply access to a server cabinet.

Multifactor authentication is a growing requirement for many access control scenarios and more data center managers are implementing it, particularly for server racks containing highly sensitive data. Common multifactor systems typically require the following factors:

  • Something you know–such as a PIN
  • Something you have–such as an RFID card
  • Something you are–biometric data, such as a fingerprint or through facial recognition scans

With multifactor authentication, one piece of information alone does not grant access. An electronic lock can be designed to require the user to present an RFID card, and then enter a PIN code on a keypad. There are electronic locking systems that are designed to be modular, allowing different types of access controllers to be easily added to the lock and satisfying the specific level of security for a given server rack.

The levels of safety can be further enhanced in a relatively simple manner. For example, there are electronic locking systems that combine RFID cards and fingerprint readers. Technicians assigned to access a server rack using this type of system have their fingerprint data loaded onto the card. To access the server, they present their card which transmits their fingerprint data to the reader; they then provide their fingerprint to complete access.

Designing for Compliance

Electronic access solutions provide a strong level of physical access control for a variety of data center security applications, whether providing storage for one organization or several housed in a colocation environment. Managers of colocation environments have started to adopt intelligent locking systems due to the challenges of protecting access to individual cabinets, rather than “caging” a cabinet or group of cabinets into separate areas of the data center.

Electronic access solutions are adaptable to both structural designs and control mechanisms that are already in place. Often, building access cards or ID badges are already part of an organization’s access control system; using them for rack-level access eliminates the need to create new or separate credentials.

Conclusion

Expectations for data security and management have changed significantly. Regulations are driving facility managers to consider comprehensive security solutions with monitoring capabilities and digital audit trails to protect sensitive information from the threat of unauthorized access and theft. Regulatory requirements related to data security will continue to increase in response to the constantly changing tactics of data thieves.

Data center managers can prevent these situations from occurring by optimizing security down to the rack level with electronic access solutions. Electronic locks extend intelligent security from existing building security networks to data center cabinets. As a result, data center managers can ensure their facilities and equipment are protected against the risk of data breaches and any penalties associated with non-compliance.

 

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