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David Manning, managing director at MIGSOLV, one of the UK’s most secure data centres, gives us an insight into how he ensures your data is kept safe from physical threats and fire.

Despite enabling almost every aspect of modern life, data centres are something most people know exist, but few have considered. Data centres like our Gatehouse in Norwich, house servers and other IT hardware for businesses and organisations. 

In turn, the hardware stores and processes critical data which enables many of the products and services we all use each day. Physical security is paramount to protect from threats like intruders, terrorists and natural disaster. 

An aerial view of the MIGSOLV facility

IT cannot function without electricity, so as well as drawing power from the grid, we also have enough backup power generation for eight days. Heat is harmful, so data halls are climatically controlled to prolong the life of hardware. Finally, with electronics comes the additional threat of fire and the risk of water damage from traditional fire suppression. Fire protection is also critical and complex.

Let’s start by considering physical security. We have to provide a deterrent and protect our client’s hardware from people who might seek to harm it.

Our security centre is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. A team of three guard the entrance and patrol the perimeter which is protected by a 3m high fence, razor wire and microwave movement sensors. CCTV with 100% coverage and 93 days retention, provides an added deterrent and reference, should it be needed.

Data centre customers need access to their hardware to make changes and perform maintenance. Visits must be pre-booked and the security guards meticulously check photo ID. Once a visitor is cleared, they are given a proximity card which provides restricted access only to the areas they need.

Once cleared, they pass through a heavy turnstile and across the forecourt to the data centre building. If vehicle access is required to drop off or collect hardware, a vehicle trap ensures a heavy security gate (capable of deflecting a speeding vehicle) shuts behind them before the inner gate opens. 

Not only is the entrance of the data centre building itself secure, but so is each internal door and final access to the data hall where we physically store and protect the IT and data. Final access to the data hall itself is gained by an additional iris recognition and proximity card check. 

Once inside the data hall itself, security is no less rigid. Rows and rows of racks containing the IT hardware are split into self-contained aisles. Each aisle has security doors. Visitors can only access the aisle containing their equipment and a further card swipe will only open their specific rack.

Though the security in the Gatehouse is truly world-class, similar levels of security can be found in other purpose-built commercial data centres. The next threat is fire.

With gigawatts of electricity flowing though thousands of electronic devices, fire is a risk and must be contained. Smoke and heat detectors throughout the building are linked to a complex building management system and two forms of fire suppression.

Electrical equipment and water don’t mix well. Use of a typical water sprinkler system can cause significant collateral damage. Instead, the data hall uses inert gas which targets the location of the fire and starves it of oxygen. IT and hardware outside the affected area can continue to function normally for our customers.

The data hall is just one element of a data centre. To provide uninterrupted electricity should the mains supply fail, we have three large diesel generators with enough fuel for eight days at full charge. 

Before they begin, a Rotary Uninterrupted Power Supply and banks of batteries seamlessly take the load. Temperature and humidity in the data halls is controlled by free cooling chillers which provide more than 340 days of low-energy cooling each year by harnessing the lower outside temperatures.

Plant and office areas are protected from fire by more inert gas or a dry pipe pre-action mist system. The sprinkler system is filled with compressed air which is released first before water flows, eliminating the risk of water leaks which could harm the sensitive equipment.

Location may seem like an unlikely component, but where a data centre is situated can have a significant impact on security. Flood plains, estuaries and coastal locations can provide an unnecessary physical risk. 

Likewise, built up areas and proximity to bustling cities can also increase security risks. Our Gatehouse data centre is situated on a quiet trading estate in Norwich, Norfolk. Its statistically one of the safest areas in the UK.

Though the reality is complex, a data centre’s purpose is simply to house and protect critical IT equipment and the data being stored and processed within. Nothing is more critical than physical security and fire protection. 

Renovated at a cost of £12M in 2012, our Gatehouse data centre represents some of the latest and highest levels of security and fire protection protecting any physical asset in the UK, Europe and beyond.