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A lot of time and columns are spent discussing securing a server from outside attacks. This is perfectly valid because it's easier for an attacker to use the Internet to break your server than it is for them to gain physical access.

However, some IT professionals gloss over the importance of physical server security. Many, if not most, of the most egregious breaches of security are performed from inside the organization.

  • How do you protect your servers from users with on-site access who have no need to access the server or server room itself?

Is it just next to the IT manager's desk in a cubicle, or locked behind several doors with electronic card and biometric access?

Once someone has physical access to the servers, what protections are in place that prevent, or at least log, access to sensitive data they have no reasonable need to see?

Of course this will vary from organization to organization, and business need to business need, but even print servers have access to sensitive data (contracts and employee information) being printed, so there's more to this than might appear at first glance.

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13 Answers 13

up vote 21 down vote accepted

All our production servers are stored on the other side of the world in a solid data center. Man traps, biometric scanners, the whole box and dice.

For the machines that are in our office, they live in the server room, accessible only via swipe card. Only the sysadmins have swipe cards that can access that area.

In short, if someone physically has their hands on your kit, then your data is theirs. If this is a sufficient concern then pgp'ing anything of value and decrypting it on the fly is a heavy handed but necessary requirement.

edit: you could extend this to questions of physical security of your backup media. What good is solid physical security if your offsites are not as or more secure?

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Love the comment about backup media security. –  Adam Davis May 5 '09 at 16:00
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What use is good physical security when the backup tapes live at the accountants beach house. True story. –  Dave Cheney May 5 '09 at 16:01
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I really do hate the idea of using biometrics. If you really need that kind of security, wouldnt your adversary then go for your body parts? My job isn't paying enough to justify that :-) –  Commander Keen May 10 '09 at 21:12
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+1 for man traps :) –  Bryan Mar 3 '10 at 10:30
    
...and for dice! –  gWaldo Sep 15 '10 at 12:22

The amount of physical security you need depends on the nature and size of your business, IT staff, etc. For most smaller companies, a locked door and inexpensive security camera will do the trick.

Securing access to the electrical closet is important, too. Throwing a breaker goes a long way toward shutting down computer systems.

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Absolutely true. A company I know of had a locked server room, but the mechanical room down the hall on their floor was always unlocked X-( –  Dana the Sane May 5 '09 at 16:08

All manners of physical security can be taken with smart card access, prox sensors, heavy doors, kick plates, cameras, strong passwords, biometrics..

The problem is when electricians needed to do wiring, prop the door open with a brick and head off to lunch without notifying anyone. It had happened once. Luckily I came in moments later. Funny how a brick can circumvent $10k+ of security.

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I think they call those 'jar sensors', for 'the door is ajar'. Connected to a sufficiently loud alarm, they generally discourage contractors from that kind of behavior. If you need to get more serious than that, you're probably talking about setting up a man trap. –  Dave Cheney May 5 '09 at 16:03
    
It would need a battery backup, in case the electricians unplug the alarm. –  stukelly May 6 '09 at 11:22

Our server room is protected via keycard. Only IT personnel have keycards that will open the door, and only the Security department has control over your keycard's access permissions.

Once inside the server room, all the servers are held in enclosed racks. The front and rear doors of each rack are locked, and only IT personnel are given rack keys.

We also keep the networking closets on all floors locked, and only members of the Facilities team has keys for these doors.

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If it's small-to-medium company, probably will have it's servers in colocation center, if it's big corporation, will have it's own.

This usually provide physical security means you've mentioned. What you didn't mention is electromagnetic shielding, preventing eavesdropping (there are commercially available products capable of eavesdropping twisted-pair Ethernet from distance of hundred feet or so). In case of banks, these are bunker-like structures, that would even withstand EMP attacks.

It's also typical for data center, to have at least two physical locations, to have backup in case of some type of natural disaster (flood, fire, whatever). Of course it's own power supply, not only UPS, but also generators.

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Another thing. Beware of non-technical users and their stupidity.

Our production servers were safe at colocation center, but development ones in the office. Once the cleaning lady couldn't find free power outlet, and plugged the vacuum cleaner to the servers' UPS. Luckily it had quite loud overload alarm, so we could react promptly.

Other case (don't know how much real or urban legend it is), there where mysterious downtimes of one of the servers every day early in the morning. No one could identify the problem. Resulted, that the security guard at the start of his shift would unplug one of the servers, and plug in the coffee maker. He though that "no one would notice, it was only 3 minutes".

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My work revolves around something that is, ah, not as critical...so security isn't as tight as "Iron Mountain" or somesuch. However...

The server room is on the second floor of a building that uses 6" concrete slab walls. The initial entry point outside requires a key (and getting past front-counter employees). The second entry point requires a different key. The third entry point requires a third key, and the door employs wire-mesh glass to prevent casual attacks, although I guess someone with a chainsaw, blowtorch, or other noisy/obtrusive/obvious means of attack would get through. The entire facility is covered with cameras running on DVRs that record movement 24/7, and the DVRs themselves are secured in a similar manner.

Backups are stored in the server room in a media-rated fire safe insert, which is then placed inside an additional fire safe. Offsite backups are taken directly by the IT Manager, who lives in an alarmed house (and I'm sure has an on-site safe as well).

No, I did not design the physical security, nor do I determine the policy on physical security. The place sells boxes of cabbage and oranges and whatnot, so it's not like we're in the business of handling military or state secrets...

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Our building used to be a bank, so we keep our servers in the vault. Cooling isn't great, but we only have half a dozen, and none of them are hugely powerful, so it's not really an issue.

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This one's part urban legend, part truth.

UL: A company was having a new computer room built and the IT admin was showing off the security measures (man-trap, swipe cards, etc.) to one of his friends. The friend nodded his head seeming to be very impressed. A few minutes later the two are talking just outside the door when the friend gets an idea. He turns his back to the wall and gives it a good kick, breaking a good size hole in the wall. Needless to say, the admin had the walls reinforced before moving in.

Truth: Small company leasing space in a multi-tenant building. Card keys, etc. Over a weekend someone punched a hole in the drywall next to the door and stole 20 computers (including the server with all the license keys)

We have a layer of metal under the drywall of our computer room.

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Have your IT staff (and if possible, a police officer/reservist friend or someone in the security field) sit in a room some day. Watch Sneakers, Mission Impossible and Oceans 11.

Then come up with every scenario where someone would break into the room. Under the floor, through the walls, defeating the door lock, through the ceiling, through the vents.

Then, layer your security.

Use doors, locks, concrete and metal bars/grates to make the room as impervious as possible.

Then, assume that your first line of security is breached.

Motion sensors, silent alarms, audible alarms are all good.

Locks on all the racks keep people out (or slow them down).

A few cameras (outside the door and in the server room) which log to a separate room/site is an excellent deterrent.

As a side note, don't forget about securing the backups.

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Depending on your data you may wish to consider supervision.

One data centre I know of - I didn't access it but my teammates did. You needed photo id and authorization to access. So in the case of our team who only visited it rarely we had to get a letter from our director to access our servers.

Once they decided to let you in, they'd take a thumb print and hang the standard badge/access card on you. Then you were escorted by two people, a technical escort and a security guard. I understand the idea was if the technical person saw you do something he didn't like he set the security guard on you to prevent you from doing whatever it was.

This was a data centre which held servers for major international banks in the City of London.

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Ha ha, I knew people took security seriously, but biometrics? mental. I suppose it really does depend on the nature of the data you have stored. I had to research a small sized setup for our design company and we found some good stuff on GuruOnline, lots of vids about network security and stuff. It's pretty basic but might be a good start...

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The cleaning lady with a hoover and security guard with a coffee machine. ha-ha. at least they are not paid to know all the IT stuff. here is the real halloween story.

our IT manager decided to move on and quit. the company managing director hired some slick who had no idea about IT but they went to the same posh school so i suppose on the interview they were talking b0llox about old times, rowing challenges, booze and girls.

on his second week the new IT manager went to the server room and stayed after hours for a while making himself familiar with the setup (I still have no idea what he was doing there). because the aircons are quite strong in there he switched them off. after few hours of joking around he went home (perhaps very satisfied, perhaps even literally - I dont exclude possibility him watching p0rn there). surely he was very tired (long hours lot of noise etc) so he naturally forgot to switch the aircon back.

by the morning the database server was cooked completely to halt and 2 other servers failed in next 2 days.

and you say cleaning lady. she surely would do better job (especially for the amount he was paid). the only good stuff in that story is that the whole IT department, each of us went to the MD one by one and told that is going to be a disaster if he stays. luckly MD realised that is something really wrong if everyone said that and fired the idi0t.

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