The green data center, wireless sensors, friend or foe.

Today I have a special request to talk about wireless sensors in the data center. Use of sensors throughout the data center is increasing dramatically but I think there are some serious considerations about using wireless ones.

With the current full scale push for maximum energy efficient green data centers, the addition of sensors to the facility to allow fine grained control is increasing by leaps and bounds. This fine grained control allows data center infrastructure such as cooling systems to be adjusted optimally for spot variations.

On the positive side, wireless sensors are ridiculously easy to deploy in the data center, requiring no cable work. They are also generally inexpensive and very flexible, in that they can easily be moved as equipment configurations changed.

The problem that has been raised with wireless sensors is the security implications. In this case, I’m not talking about data leaking out (it’s unlikely to be a state secret what the temperature at the top of cabinet #107 is) but rather data leaking in.

Imagine for instance a malicious person or persons injecting false data into the sensor data stream. Presuming you’re operating a facilities management system that controls the data center infrastructure from the data provided by the wireless sensors, you are now allowing outside entities some degree of control over the facility. Feed false data from a small selection of sensors and you can now fool the facility management system into allowing a single cabinet in the middle of a thousand to overheat. Fine grained control indeed, just not the way you intended it.

Easier than that would be a simple blanket jamming of the wireless sensor frequencies. Now not only has your system lost control of the facility by virtue of being blinded, how is that system going to react to the loss of all sensors? Could it panic and shut the facility down? Could it place infrastructure equipment in potentially dangerous operating conditions (I’m reminded of the DoD test where they simulated a hacking attack and remotely destroyed a running diesel generator)?

In my opinion, wireless sensors are fine for informational purposes but no facility control system, human or automated, should be making operational decisions based on them. Use hardwired sensors on a dedicated, partitioned network and you can be sure you’re getting the real scoop on what’s going on in your green data center.


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