Drone wars: UAVs and data centre security
Data centre security is non-negotiable. With more and more of the world’s critical information passing through public cloud and enterprise data centres, protecting these facilities from attack is becoming an increasingly vital task.
Unfortunately, thanks to everything from to , keeping a modern data centre secure is also becoming more challenging by the day. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, have become an increasingly controversial subject in recent years for their ability to remotely disrupt and spy on otherwise inaccessible locations, including , and even data centres.
A looming threat
Predictions around the future uses of drones range from the utopian to the downright melodramatic.
Max Tegmark, in his book Life 3.0, writes: “Once mass produced, small AI-powered killer drones are likely to cost little more than a smartphone. Whether it’s a terrorist wanting to assassinate a politician or a jilted lover seeking revenge on his ex-girlfriend, all they need to do is upload their target’s photo and address into the killer drone: it can then fly to the destination, identify and eliminate the person, and self-destruct to ensure that nobody knows who was responsible.” While the idea of buying an AI-powered killer smart drone for the price of an LG Wing and feeding your flying assassin a picture of your ex-girlfriends’ face is undoubtedly on the hysterical side, it’s not without a basis in fact.
Drones are already a proven quantity in terms of military applications, and the availability of increasingly-capable drones to the civilian population is rising faster than this It all raises the question of how easily this sort of technology could be co opted for nefarious ends.
In a sense, the combination of drone tech and weaponry is already a pretty dystopian idea. The US military’s extensive use of drone strikes during the Obama administration has rightly drawn criticism. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Bush Administration, then the Obama administration, and now the Trump administration have continually developed and expanded the “most powerful military and state surveillance apparatus in all of history,” wrote Branko Marcetic for The Jacobin back in the days before Trump’s ascension to the White House. The Trump Administration has inherited a sprawling and opaque national security regime that has embraced drone tech (among other things) as a way to perpetrate extrajudicial killings on foreign soil with impunity.
Now, as civil unrest grips the United States in the lead up to the presidential election, the idea of military sanctioned drone strikes against a civilian population - as well as civilians with access to modified consumer drones as a form of remote weaponry - paints a potentially bleak picture. Just this week, the Taliban executed an extremely effective , killing four. “If the strike on Sunday was indeed carried out by an armed drone, it would show the proliferation of a method of attack that could have wide-ranging and dire consequences for Afghan, United States and NATO forces,” writes the New York Times.
Drones over the data centre
In the data centre industry, things are no different. Several industry experts have warned against the threat of drones as a tool of everything from sabotage to the theft of trade secrets. In a relatively harmless example, GeekPub over Facebook’s data centre in Texas back in 2016.
In , security consultant Adam Ringle warns that, “Somebody may be able to take a picture the day before to find out where the cooling system, gas or electric lines are. The next day they could fly a drone into it with 3.4 pounds of C4 and then it’s game over.”
However, as with all new tools, drones are neither an inherent risk or benefit to data centres. In fact, several companies are working very hard to make sure that UAVs have a future in keeping data centres safe, not blowing them up.
, a French UAV manufacturer, is a keen proponent of using flocks of drones to provide 24/7 security coverage of critical environments. “Security and safety teams can schedule remote patrols and follow live the drone’s trajectory and video feedback on their remote interface. In the event of a security breach, autonomous drones automatically take off to the alert point to remove doubts. Security teams can then take control of the camera remotely to identify the threat and prepare an intervention,” wrote a company spokesperson in a .
The ability for drones to patrol and guard a data centre against aerial and ground based threats sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but the technology is already finding applications in other critical environments. Last year, Azur Drones entered into a project with the Port of Dunkirk to provide using its Skyetech drones, in partnership with Eamus Cork and Genetec.
“Due to its dense activity and regulatory requirements, the Port Facility must be secured 7 days a week and 24 hours a day. It became clear that our human presence and the operator’s CCTV system should be complemented by drone technology. The Skeyetech system, integrated with Genetec, improves the responsiveness and efficiency of the security teams that monitor the installations.” noted Thomas Ditacroute, Chief Operating Officer at Eamus Cork at the time.
There’s no denying that the modern drone can pose a potentially huge threat - both to our society at large and the modern data centre - but the technology is also undeniably a powerful tool in the hands of data centre operators looking to gain better visibility across their security systems.
Data centre job market projected to grow to 2.3mn by 2025
The data centre industry had a fairly unique 2020. At a time when most sectors - hospitality and retail in particular - saw massive layoffs and furloughs, the demand for data centre services, and as a result data centre staff, continued its meteoric rise in spite of the pandemic.
A new report from the Uptime Institute - the leading certification body for data centre design; the folks who determine whether a facility is Tier I, II, or higher - was . The is the industry’s first comprehensive breakdown of workforce needs since the start of the pandemic.
The report’s authors note two megatrends set to create potential pain points for data centre operators looking to meet staffing demands over the coming years: a historic growth in demand, coinciding with a wave of experienced data centre staff in mature markets reaching retirement - colourfully dubbed the “silver tsunami”.
Across all regions and markets around the globe, the are continuing to accelerate data centre demand. Data centres are being commissioned, designed and built at a rate never seen before in the industry.
All of these processes require staff and, while automation has been doing a lot of legwork during the pandemic (using AI to increase efficiency and reduce the number of required number of on-site staff through predictive maintenance) as well as better DCIM platforms and the more modular design approaches being championed by , the industry’s need for skilled workers is only projected to grow as the decade continues.
Taj El-Khayat, Regional Director MENA at Citrix noted last year that, “The digital transformation’s acceleration across organisations due to the pandemic has exposed skill shortages. This has especially been the case for data centre operators, requested to provide the best and most stable service while facing a drastic and sudden increase in load.”
As a result, the data centre industry is expected to spend the next five years scrambling to fill more jobs than there may be available workers.
Courtesy of the Uptime Institute
In 2019, the global data centre industry employed approximately 2mn people. By 2025, that figure is expected to rise to 2.3mn, driven largely by growth in the APAC market, but also North America and EMEA.
The silver tsunami
In the more mature data centre markets, like northern Europe and North America, the Uptime Institute has raised an additional red flag. Due to the age of the industry and the speed at which it was initially built out at the end of the 1990s with the birth of the internet, “many employees are due to retire about the same time,” notes the report, cautioning that the coming silver tsunami could cause an additional surge in staffing demands. The effect, write the report’s authors, could “last for the coming decade.”
The report notes that, in particular, technical staff are notoriously difficult to recruit for data centres. It also adds that mechanical and electrical engineers in strategy and operations roles, and all types of controls and monitoring employees, will all be needed in greater numbers over the coming years.
In order to overcome these challenges and meet unprecedented demand for digital infrastructure, Rhonda Ascierto, vice president of research at the Uptime Institute notes that the “fast-growing and dynamic” sector will “need people from all backgrounds, all over the world,” if it is to meet the coming challenges.