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New data center protects against solar storms and nuclear EMPs

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Data loss from an electromagnetic pulse is the bigger worry

In Boyers, Pa., a recently opened 2,000-sq.-ft. data center has been purpose-built to protect against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), either generated by a solar storm or a nuclear event.

The company that built the facility isn't disclosing exactly how the data center was constructed or what materials were used. But broadly, it did say that the structure has an inner skin and an outer skin that use a combination of thicknesses and metals to provide EMP protection.

There are other data centers that protect against electromagnetic pulses, which can be generated by solar storms or high-altitude nuclear blasts. Underground data centers, in particular, advertise this capability. And some vendors offer containers and cabinets that shield IT equipment from EMPs, which can fry circuits.

But there's been little discussion, overall, about whether EMP protection should be a standard risk mitigation feature in data centers.

The two solar storms that began arriving Thursday night aren't strong enough to hurt electronics on the ground, though they could disrupt GPS and radio communications. More than anything, they're a reminder of a risk that is the subject of steady warnings but isn't immediate enough to spur people to do much about it -- though it is real enough to inspire visions of apocalyptic scenarios among Washington policy makers.

Betting against an EMP event is a gamble. On July 23, 2012, a solar super storm released a coronal mass ejection (CME) that passed through the Earth's orbit but missed the Earth itself. It is believed to have been as powerful as the 1859 Carrington Event, a solar storm that disrupted and knocked out the most advanced electronic communications medium of the day, the telegraph.

The perfect solar storm would require a big sun spot cluster and a very rapid CME, and the magnetic field inside the solar storm would have to couple perfectly with the Earth's magnetic field. If that happened, the consequences could be significant, William Murtagh, program coordinator at U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, said Thursday.

"We're concerned that can happen," he said about the prospect of a major solar storm hitting the Earth. The 2012 solar storm "was very powerful, and some have suggested it would have been on par with a Carrington-level event." But that particular storm was not directed at the Earth, he said.

EMP protection can be built into a data center at very little additional cost, said Kris Domich, president of Cyber Innovation Labs - Professional Services (CIL). The company is the founding member of EMP Grid Services, a recently formed company responsible for the EMP-ready data center in Boyers, Pa. CIL provides infrastructure services.

Domich said the idea for the EMP-resistant data center came from a customer, an insurer, that wanted to protect its data from electromagnetic pulses.

An EMP can "irrevocably destroy" data, said Domich. The magnetic field on a disk that is used to set the data, if not maintained, or if it is abruptly or intensely changed, will wipe out the data, he said.

Lee Kirby, CTO of the Uptime Institute, a data center advisory and research group, said that EMP risks are not high on the list of things that data center managers worry about. But he said that may be more because of the newness of this industry.

"When you look at it from a business justification viewpoint, [EMP protection] gets pushed way down the line, just from a probability point of view," Kirby said.

Nonetheless, he said, the threat of electromagnetic pulses could become a topic of much discussion for data center professionals.

There have been a number of government reports, as well as congressional hearings, detailing the threats posed by EMPs. The idea that an EMP could be generated by a terrorist-sponsored nuclear blast is getting more attention, particularly because of concerns about North Korea and Iran.

A nuclear blast 60 miles up in the atmosphere could expose about 1.5 million square miles of territory to EMP impacts that could, among other things, knock out SCADA systems that help run the infrastructure of electric and water utilities and oil and gas pipeline systems.

The loss of electric power over a substantial period of time is "likely to be catastrophic, and many people may ultimately die for lack of the basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities," according to a 2008 U.S. government report that examined the effects of an EMP event.

Repairing the power grid could take four to 10 years, and the economic cost could exceed $2 trillion.

EMPs send out a pulse of energy that can short-circuit electronics in everything from cellphones and computers in cars to enterprise networks. EMP-generating devices are not necessarily nuclear, and they can be built with over-the-counter parts.

Congress has held repeated hearings over the years, particularly since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and there have been a number of government reports that describe the consequences. But there is no action plan, and the need for EMP protection sits lower on the list of public-sector priorities than increasingly costly infrastructure projects, such as efforts to repair or replace aging bridges, roads and water lines.

The problem may that EMPs are not seen as an immediate threat. According to one government estimate, made by intelligence agencies, a crippling solar geomagnetic storm is unlikely to occur more than once in 100 years.

A U.S. House bill, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (HR 3410), requires the government to give more attention to EMP disaster planning and to "proactively educate" the owners of critical infrastructure about the threat of electromagnetic pulses. But it has not advanced beyond a committee in this Congress.

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    19 Comments
    20 hours ago
    Andrei Bilderburger
    Don't get sucked in by mentally ill losers. The EMP issue is not real.  The nuclear weapons issue flows from US testing in the early 1960's involving megaton sized weapons.  Those are necessarily 2 stage fusion weapons.  North Korea is not going to be making those for a long time. Also megaton scale weapons are not light, a highly optimized US one is still over a ton, less optimized ones are several tons.  These need to be tossed up more or less 100 miles or so to create an EMP.  That has to happen where you want the event, so now you have a North Korean ship with a rather large missile that is going to put a multiton weapon into space.  This ship is going to cruise over to near the USA and do its thing, unnnoticed. Not very plausible.
    2 hours ago
    PeKay Es
    Despite Andrei's comment, an EMP attack on our electric grid is an easy mark. Hopefully this technique will  be applied to protect our electricity infrastructure.
    21 hours ago
    Bob Anderson
    Edward Snowden (fake name) is a fraud ACTOR reading a script. The NSA is a HOAX. What they show us on the tv and the "news" is a false reality. They feed you fear propaganda and lies. Google this for your proof.... Wellaware1
    20 hours ago
    Keith Maniac
    If I had a son, he would look like Edward Snowden.
    20 hours ago
    Bob Anderson
    Edward Snowden is not a real person. He is a character on your TV screen. You are under mind control if you believe anything he says.
    21 hours ago
    intoexploring
    Too bad the data that the data center holds will be all but useless if a major EMP hits the United States.  Most people will be a little more worried about other things, like.......oh, I dunno...FOOD?
    22 hours ago
    Xavier Nihilo
    EMP is a real problem, whereas AGW is a nebulous maybe
    1 day ago
    Jim
    Its not that hard to build what we used to call an "isolated ground" system. They have been around for 40 years in Telco Central Offices. Maintaining that system is another matter. One piece of conduit installed after the original plant installation by a contractor not familiar with the system and its ruined. Hardly any contractors even know about it.
    1 day ago
    Shawn Walsh
    i would assume its just a faraday cage around the center or some variant thereof. 
    2 days ago
    Tom smith
    I'm glad he let us (confidentially) know about this "secret" center.  Maybe he should list the construction people's names and addresses, and where their children go to school, "in the interest of freedom of the press," of course.  That'll really worry the terrorists.
    2 days ago
    Myron Zorger Jr.
    Won't do a bit of good if it's at ground level! But then who would do that?
    2 days ago
    Cliff Chism
    If it's at ground level, HEMP is the least of your worries. But, on the other hand, if it is a large EMP burst from a solar flare on par with the Carrington event, what use is protecting the data center? No one is going to be able to access it. The internet is toast. PC's are toast. The electric grid is toast. All it would be is a bunch of data with no use. I can just about guarantee, based on what we saw after Katrina, that it's going to be a long and dangerous 5-10 years before even basic normality is returned to what remains of civilization. JMHO. YMMV.
    2 days ago
    Steve Andrews
    Well, we seem to whiz away "trillions" of dollars on favors to certain special interest groups, and for paying people not to work --- but next to nothing on a preventable catastrophic event.
    2 days ago
    John Marsden
    Take those billions of dollars wasted on 'climate change' and pour it into hardening our electrical/technolog­ical infrastructure.
    2 days ago
    Cliff Chism
    The sad thing is that some have estimated that it would "only" take about a billion dollars and some time to do that. Heck, the government probably spends that much on milkshakes every year.
    2 days ago
    Vasco DeGama
    yeah, 'cause when the power grid goes down the first thing people will be worried about is their data....
    2 days ago
    Jakki Kimball
    So, is this now where Lois Lerner and all IRS emails will be kept?
    2 days ago
    Joe Blow
    2000 sq. ft.?  Really?  Sounds like something from Doomsday Preppers.
    2 days ago
    Steve Andrews
    I thought that was rather a small footprint unless there are to be redundant systems all across the map, in case our adversaries manage to take out one or several of them.
    View All 19 Comments