An Introductory Guide to Data Center Security

Image of a networking data center
Ensure you implement a complete data center security plan.

Data center security starts with threat detection. To effectively secure your IT infrastructure, you must be familiar with the various aspects of security in and around it. So, if you’re using a data center to host your infrastructure, you should be familiar with data center security

In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of data center security. You’ll learn what it is, who needs it, the threats that may affect it, relevant best practices, security tiers, and more. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get the ball rolling. 

First, let’s answer the question: What is data center security? 

What Is Data Center Security?

Data center security is the combination of controls intended to protect your data center assets. Your data center assets can include physical assets like servers, storage devices, routers, and other network devices. It can also include software assets like operating systems, applications, and data. 

Data security, then, must combine physical and software-based controls for protecting your data center assets against threats. We’ll talk about all this and more later in this article. In the meantime, let’s identify who exactly needs data center security.

Who Needs Data Center Security?

Every person or organization that leases data center space will have assets that need to be completely secured

Sensitive data must be kept confidential. You also need to preserve your business’s integrity. To do that, you must ensure the services and processes in your data center are always available

These three attributes—confidentiality, integrity, and availability—are always at risk of getting compromised due to various threats. Let’s discuss some of those threats now. 

Common Data Center Threats

Your data center is always exposed to various natural and man-made threats. To avoid or minimize the impact of these threats on your business, you must be familiar with them first. Here are some of the most common threats to data centers worldwide.

Natural Threats

Natural threats, or natural hazards, are threats due to destructive events in the natural environment. Here are some of them:

  • Earthquakes: High-magnitude earthquakes can make your data center walls and ceiling collapse on racks, servers, and network equipment. 
  • Tsunamis: Elevated water levels can inundate servers, network equipment, power generators, etc.
  • Wildfires: Intense heat can damage electronic parts. In extreme cases, parts of your data center can also catch fire.
  • Hurricanes: Can cause flooding, which can, in turn, inundate servers, network equipment, power generators, etc. High humidity levels can also damage certain equipment.

Each of these threats can have several possible impacts, including extreme levels of downtime, damage to your physical assets, and data loss. Next, I’ll talk about man-made threats.

Man-Made Threats

Man-made threats are incidents initiated by human beings. They can be deliberately carried out by a malicious cybercriminal. Alternatively, they can happen by accident due to carelessness. You’ll find some of the common man-made threats below:

  • Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack: A network-based attack can overwhelm your servers or network devices. This can take your services offline or prevent users from connecting.
  • Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attack: A network-based attack designed to intercept and steal confidential data—usually login credentials— from a network session. The cybercriminal can then use those login credentials to break into your servers.
  • Sabotage or terrorist attack: Deliberate acts that destroy parts of your data center. The threat actor can be an active shooter, bomber, arsonist, etc. 
  • Malware: Malicious software that can infect your servers. Malware can corrupt files, degrade network performance, or cause your servers to fail. 
  • Ransomware: A specific type of malware that can lock up your files, servers, or your entire network and then display a ransom note. 
  • Data theft: A deliberate act that can be as sophisticated as a remote hack or as crude as a malicious data center engineer walking off with one of your hard drives. 
  • Accidental data breach: An unintentional act that leads to a data breach. Misconfigurations or a missent file usually cause this. 

Man-made threat impacts include reputational damage, financial loss, data loss, downtime, and regulatory fines.

Now that you’re familiar with your data center’s most common potential threats, it’s time to discuss how you can mitigate them

How to Secure Your Data Center Assets

To mitigate the threats I identified earlier, you need to secure your data center in two areas. You need to secure your data center’s physical and software aspects. Let’s dive deeper, starting with physical data center security.

Physical Data Center Security

Physical data center security refers to controls designed to protect your physical assets. Normally, your data center operator must provide physical security. However, you can add these controls as part of your criteria in choosing secure data centers. Here are some examples of physical data center security controls.  

Security ControlDescriptionHow It Secures Your Data Center Assets
LocationThis is your data center’s location. Your data center’s location can help eliminate certain threats. If your data center is inland, far from vegetation, you can eliminate tsunamis and wildfires as potential threats.
Surveillance camerasA network of cameras used for monitoring the data center’s premises. Cameras serve as deterrents for acts of terrorism, arson, and physical theft against your physical assets.
Security guardsPeople responsible for security in data center premises. They enforce your physical security policies. Security guards serve as deterrents for acts of terrorism, arson, sabotage, and physical theft against your physical assets. They can also respond if these acts are underway. 
Multi-factor authentication for physical assetsA selection of authentication methods like biometric scans, PINs, IDs, badges, etc.Helps ensure that only authorized people have access to your physical assets.
CagesMetal enclosures that segregate servers, racks, and other devices owned by different customers.Prevents unauthorized access to your servers and other physical assets.
Fire suppression systemA system designed to prevent fire from spreading.Prevents your assets from getting destroyed by fire.
Seismic server racksRacks that are specially designed to withstand earthquakes.Prevents your assets from getting damaged by an earthquake. 
Physical security controls and how they protect your data center assets.

Software Data Center Security

Software data center security refers to controls designed to protect your software assets like your applications and data. Here are some examples of software data center security. 

Security ControlDescriptionHow It Secures Your Data Center Assets
Backup systemA system that allows you to create copies of your data and store them in another facility. Ensures you still have usable copies of your data if your data center gets incapacitated. 
FirewallA security tool that controls the flow of traffic into your network.Helps prevent undesirable network traffic from reaching your servers.
Intrusion Detection SystemA system that detects potential intrusions in your network. Help you detect threats so your security staff can prevent them. 
Intrusion Prevention SystemA system that prevents intrusions into your network.Blocks potential threats from reaching your network or hosts automatically. 
Multi-factor authentication for software assetsA selection of authentication methods like passwords, one-time passwords (OTPs), PINs, private keys, etc.Helps ensure that only authorized people can gain remote network access to those assets. 
AntimalwareA security solution that detects and acts on malware.Prevents malware from infecting your software assets. 
Encrypted protocolsNetwork protocols like HTTPS, SFTP, and FTPS that prevent MITM attacks.Prevents malicious individuals from stealing confidential data from your network connections. 
Software security controls and how they protect your data center assets.

The more valuable your assets are, the higher the level of data center security you’ll require. But how can you determine the security level for a particular data center? Sure, you can scrutinize its list of controls, but I’m here to show you a faster way—data center security tiers! Let’s talk about them now. 

Data Center Security Tiers

Data center tiers are standardized classifications of data centers based on their degree of complexity. The higher the tier classification, the more complex a data center is. As a result, higher tiers equate to higher levels of security and are more expensive. You should take that into account when choosing a data center.

You have 4 tiers in total. Let’s go over each one. 

Tier 1

This is a facility with single-capacity components. Single capacity is a capacity that meets a computer or network equipment’s minimum requirements. This tier will suffice if you’re running a small business and your operation is only slightly dependent on security and uptime. 

Tier 2

This is a facility that has redundant capacity components. Redundant capacity exceeds the minimum required for a particular computer or network equipment. For example, Tier 2 has backup components for power and cooling. This way, if a component goes down, the backup component can take its place. Tier 2 has better provisions for minimizing disruptions than Tier 1. Consider going for a data center with this classification, at the minimum, if threats to security and uptime significantly impact your business. 

Tier 3

This type of data center also comes with redundant capacity components. However, it has better provisions for minimizing disruptions than Tier 2. For example, it may have more redundant components. It’s also built to withstand most natural threats. You should consider this tier if you have stringent security and uptime requirements. This data center tier would also work well in the healthcare and finance sectors.

Tier 4

In addition to having redundant capacity components, Tier 4 data centers also have complete fault tolerance. These data centers continue operating without interruption, even in bad situations. If you can’t afford to suffer any downtime, a Tier 4 data center is right for you. That said, you should note that you need sufficient financial resources to pay for this data center. Large enterprises usually use Tier 4 data centers. 

That said, you can still do more to improve security in data center environments. Here are the top 3 data center security best practices that I recommend. 

Image of rows of server racks across a bluish-lit data center room.
Don’t let threat actors anywhere near your servers.

Top 3 Data Center Security Best Practices

These data center security best practices require additional effort from members of your organization. But they’re all worth it. They can also go a long way in enhancing the security controls provided by your data center. 

1. Create a Disaster Recovery Plan

While backups are extremely important, they can only do so much. You need to have a disaster recovery plan (DRP) in place. A DRP incorporates backups with other key elements like risk assessment, inventory of business-critical assets, and testing. A DRP will also allow you to resume operations quickly after a disaster

2. Cultivate IT Security Awareness in Your Organization

Most threat actors will attempt to infiltrate your system through your most vulnerable points. In cybersecurity environments, your weakest link will always be your end users. You can increase IT security awareness throughout your organization, reducing the chances of users letting their guard down.

3. Beef up Your Network Security

Many of your servers and applications are reachable from the internet. In addition, they may also be connected to your other hardware and software assets. This setup makes your entire IT infrastructure susceptible to network-based threats. You can mitigate these threats by beefing up your network security. Strong network security can make it economically infeasible for a threat actor to attack your network or its components. 

Before ending things off, I’d like to share some security software solutions that can help you improve your data center security. 

Top Data Center Security Software for SMBs and Enterprises 

I picked 3 solutions that can give the best value for a specific business size. I’ll go over each one’s features, and you can choose the offering that fits your business needs. 

1. GFI LanGuard

GFI LanGuard is a network security solution specifically designed for SMBs. It enables you to:

  • Discover all your network components easily, including servers, routers, virtual machines, PCs, laptops, phones, etc. 
  • Scan your network for missing patches and then deploy patches from a central location.
  • Maintain a complete inventory of your data center assets.

These features can help you minimize your data center assets’ exposure to various threats without breaking the bank. 

2. Fortinet FortiGate

Fortinet Fortigate is a next-generation firewall (NGFW) built for large enterprises. An NGFW is a type of firewall that incorporates advanced features like:

  • Deep-packet inspection to check the contents of each packet more thoroughly.
  • Intrusion prevention system (IPS) to detect and act on perceived threats.
  • Threat intelligence integration to connect with various threat intelligence sources.

Fortinet Fortigate is a good option if you don’t have budgetary constraints.

3. Cisco NGFW

Cisco’s NGFW is a next-generation firewall that helps administrators automate both installation and maintenance using intent. This software uses artificial intelligence with an abstraction layer to map and protect the network.  Cisco’s offering provides: 

  • Automatic protection from threats, including ransomware.
  • Centralized visibility of your network security helps you manage even complex systems.
  • Automatic mitigation of attack surfaces you may have missed with earlier gen firewalls. 
  • Setup and maintenance for zero-trust network segments is simple and hassle-free.   

Cisco’s NGFW relies on threat identification from its Talos Team; the largest of its kind. This makes it a great solution for those worried about new threats that other solutions can’t find or remediate.

Now that you have an idea of a good data center security solution for SMBs and enterprises, let’s wrap things up.

Final Words

You need to protect your data center assets from natural and man-made threats that may compromise those assets’ confidentiality, integrity, and availability. This is why you have data center security—the collection of physical and software controls that protect your assets from various threats. 

Each data center is classified according to the level of security and uptime they provide. These classifications, ranging from the lowest to the highest security levels, are Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, and Tier 4. In choosing the right data center for your business, you need to match your security requirements with a data center that can meet those requirements. Data center tiers can help simplify that undertaking. 

In addition to your existing controls, you can further enhance your data center security by applying certain best practices. These best practices may include developing a disaster recovery plan, cultivating IT security awareness, and beefing up your network security. 

If you have further questions, check out the FAQ and Resources sections below. 


How do I put together a disaster recovery plan (DRP)?

If you have no idea how to develop a disaster recovery plan for your data center assets, you can start by following a disaster recovery plan template. A DRP template contains all the basic elements of a DRP plan. You can then customize and build on that template to suit your organization. 

Can I choose any firewall for my small business?

No. Small businesses have different business requirements and constraints compared to large enterprises. As such, you should choose a firewall that aligns with your specific needs. 

What’s the main difference between an IDS and an IPS?

An intrusion detection system (IDS) only helps detect potential intrusions into a host or network. On the other hand, an intrusion prevention system (IPS) can detect potential intrusions and execute preventive measures against them. This article on IDS vs IPS talks about this topic in detail. 

Aside from HTTPS, SFTP, and FTPS, what are my other options against MITM attacks?

You can use a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) can encrypt your connections like HTTPS, SFTP, FTPS, and other encrypted protocols. One big advantage of using a VPN is that it protects applications that don’t use encrypted network protocols. This article on Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) VPN offers a nice explanation.

When is it better to host my IT infrastructure in a public cloud?

You should host your IT infrastructure in a public cloud instead of a data center when you need better scalability, global reach, and faster provisioning. You should also do it if you lack the capital to purchase the physical components of that infrastructure and the in-house talent to manage them. This article on cloud computing characteristics covers some of these concepts in more detail. 


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