Transformers and power lines feed the power generated at the hydroelectric station to the people and industries of Iceland. (Photo by Colleen Miller.)

Transformers and power lines feed the power generated at the hydroelectric station to the people and industries of Iceland. (Photo by Colleen Miller.)

Experts: Electromagnetic Interference Threat to Uptime is Real

3 comments

Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and intentional electromagnetic interference is a serious threat that has not been in the forefront of the conversation within the data center industry but the industry is becoming increasingly aware, according to experts who delivered a keynote at the Data Center World conference in Las Vegas, Nev., Wednesday.

George Baker, CEO of BAYCOR, noted that with the proliferation of cloud computing, more data is being placed in fewer baskets, and that reliance on failover sites has reduced physical security. The problem EMPs present could be continental in scale. “Do not depend on electric utilities for protection,” he said.

A backup data center is normally just 60 miles or less down the road from a primary one, which would not necessarily protect against EMPs.

“The common response is ‘it can’t happen.’ ,” Michael Caruso, director of government and specialty business development at ETS-Lindgren, said. “It can and will happen.”

Regulations need to be pushed, he said, and the utilities are not anxious to regulate themselves. There has been some progress, however, with a few individual utilities taking steps.

While EMP attacks have not been common in the past, there are critical points of failure that could cause an attack to be catastrophic. The increasing importance of data centers to North American infrastructure means providers need to do better at both pushing regulation of utilities and protecting the data residing within their walls.

A lot of money has already been invested in deterring flicker sag, harmonic distortion and other electrical problems that can induce significant costs for data centers. However, intentional electromagnetic interference goes beyond most of these protections.

While the North American power grid is fairly resilient, there are several issues that pose threats down the road. There have been several official US government studies that address electrical reliability in the case of solar storms, high-altitude EMP (a nuclear explosion in high atmosphere) and coordinated terrorist attacks.

A particular vulnerability that concerns the government is the threat to large power transformers. They are the size of small houses and are vulnerable and difficult to transport, which often involves special provisions, as well as reinforcement of roads and bridges.

A major issue is that there are three basic interconnections in the power grid in North America with no single entity in charge. This is a major vulnerability.

There are also nine critical substations that, if taken down, would create a cascading effect taking down a big portion of the grid.

Different Ways to Fry Electronics

An EMP’s impact can range from a few feet to 10 kilometers. A suitcase version can be built for less than $200, and truck-mounted EMP will cost about $2,000.

An EMP can deliver a blow of 10,000 volts to 50,000 volts per meter. Common IT equipment immunity standards protect it to just 10 volts per meter.

A Boeing Champ cruise missile can fly around turning off the lights below its path, while an unpredictable burst caused by a solar storm can wreak havoc on infrastructure.

Protecting the Data Center

Shield enclosures, power and signal line filters and RF-tight doors are all methods of protecting the data center, but it is not cheap. For a greenfield project, such protection may result in a five- or eight-percent cost increase.

There are two defined levels of protection in the data center:

Level 1: Shielded electrical infrastructure, where the host facility goes down but equipment is not affected

Level 2: All-inclusive protection, where all points of entry and backup power are protected. Multiple sources for power and cooling, HVAC and generators are included in the protection scheme.

About the Author

Jason Verge is an Editor/Industry Analyst on the Data Center Knowledge team with a strong background in the data center and Web hosting industries. In the past he’s covered all things Internet Infrastructure, including cloud (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS), mass market hosting, managed hosting, enterprise IT spending trends and M&A. He writes about a range of topics at DCK, with an emphasis on cloud hosting.

Add Your Comments

  • (will not be published)

3 Comments

  1. So Faraday cages as a part of data center and power company infrastructure design?

  2. The book - One Second After - http://amzn.to/RbvEKp was one I read a couple of years ago on a tip from my barber. Being a closet prepper I eat these books up. When you read the forward from Newt Gingrich, you understand the level of credibility is a couple pegs higher than the run of the mill Chicken Little conspiracy theorist. The book describes what happens one second after the EMP goes off. No spoilers, its just a great read. The more dependent we are on technology and the more countries opposed to the use of it who get a hold of nukes, the greater likelihood a situation will occur. A small nuke on a readily available rocket shot up 20 miles will impact anything with a chip in it. Car, phone, or grid.

  3. "An EMP's impact can range from a few feet to 10 kilometers." This GROSSLY under-estimates the area of effect of EMP. A nuclear weapon detonated above the middle of the US at 500km altitude (low earth orbit) could take out all electronics in almost the continental US. Even the hard drives you have sitting on the shelf as offline backups. http://www.futurescience.com/emp.html There's a graphic showing the rage of EMP effect depending on altitude of detonation: http://www.futurescience.com/emp.jpg There are many other excellent pages on EMP on that site such as: http://www.futurescience.com/emp/EMP-myths.html Then go read about the Starfish Prime test which affected systems for hundreds of miles in all directions back in the 1960's when hardly anything was electronic. Note that North Korea is working on miniaturizing nukes and has put a satellite into orbit (albeit poorly). Their launch and nuke technology is only going to improve. Ditto for so many other countries with nukes and orbital launch capabilities. Anyone could launch a "satellite" into polar orbit and let it sit up there for years and detonate it over the US should they ever be inclined to. Hard to say whether or not this has already happened. I don't know if technology exists to detect such a thing in orbit or not. Also note that the explosive power of the weapon (kilotons or megatons) is not terribly critical for EMP. What matters is the amount of gamma produced which then shines down on the atmosphere. That's what gets all of those electrons moving, not the force of the explosion itself, which would be happening way up in space anyway. I'm not a fan of right-wing conspiracy theories (which EMP mostly is, see the book mentioned above with the foreward by Newt Gingrich) and I don't know how likely this sort of thing really is to happen but were it to happen it would be very bad indeed. You could certainly kiss cloud-anything goodbye (and really, good riddance too! :)