Storage equipment can be pricey. And the data it holds is priceless.

That's why so much attention is placed on security via firewalls, intrusion attention and AV. But this emphasis on IT security often masks a gaping hole that is waiting to be exploited physical and environmental security.

People can stroll into the data center and walk off with your equipment. Humidity and temperature fluctuations can ruin equipment. And water damage will leak through any firewall.

Case in point: a large hospital in the Midwest. The hospital basement, sited in a flood zone, hosted 166 servers and a Fibre Channel (FC) SAN. The FC SAN consisted of EMC Clariion boxes (3 TB) along with Brocade switches. One floor above the data center were 6 hot tubs, each containing 1000 gallons of water. To make matters worse, his Exchange Server storage requirements for email alone were increasing at a rate of 40 percent per year.

''We were running out of space in the hospital basement for the data center and we badly needed a disaster recovery site,'' said the hospital CTO.

An actual failure with three days of downtime, plus the high potential threat from water damage, led to the establishment of a second data center for failover. This time, though, it was sited outside a flood zone.

But you don't necessarily have to take on the huge expense of a parallel storage environment to take care of physical security. One of the cheapest ways, in fact, is the purchase and installation of a set of environmental sensors. They can be used inside server rooms, data centers, and wiring closets to monitor water, temperature, humidity, airflow, voltage and dry contact. If a preset threshold is exceeded, users are notified of situations. Say a server room or rack enclosure is tampered with. Or a device overheats. Or a room/device experiences a loss of airflow or a water leakage. Alarms automatically go out by e-mail, SMS and/or SNMP trap.

When it comes to selecting sensors, a simple rule of thumb is to keep it simple. As the idea is to keep costs down, avoid bells and whistles and stick to obvious benefits. You can spend thousands on top of the line sensors to monitor dozens of factors, yet you can get away with a couple of hundred dollars a sensor if you stick to the basics temperature and humidity. If you need more functionality, add it. But only if you really need it.

Is It Getting Hot in Here?

Cameras to keep an eye on the server room are nice, for example, but not worth the markup. If you can get an environmental sensor with an inexpensive webcam feature, go ahead. But be warned that you might not use it for anything other than showing off to your peers. So focus on temperature, notification and humidification as the most important factors.

Temperature hikes, after all, can be one of the most troubling scenarios. They may be caused by broken fans or AC failure. Prolonged elevated temperatures accelerate the semiconductor aging process and so shorter their lifespan. Microprocessor-based temperature sensors in the server room alert you if the temperature drifts out of range. To save hours of hassle, avoid sensors that demand calibration to maintain the correctness of readings.

Humidity is also a vital factor to monitor. Too little and static can damage electrical components. Too much means rust your equipment. Use a sensor to maintain a fine balance.

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