A shipping container may hold the off-grid answer to protecting some of the nation’s most valuable data.
Modular data centers, also called containerized data centers, are a system of IT infrastructure such as server racks, cooling systems and power supplies that can be transported by helicopter or truck at a moment’s notice.
Some in the private sector use modular data centers as emergency backup centers or to expand their already crowded data centers, but some security experts argue the centers have far more potential than just as a “plan B” option.
IT executives, such as Walter O’Brien, CEO of Scorpion Computer Services, say the federal government should consider adopting containerized data centers in a broad fashion to bolster security.
Already, the federal government has “crown jewels” of information that they keep secure in data centers, which he colloquially calls “LAN in a can.” However, he argued the most sensitive pieces of data — such as employees’ social security numbers, addresses of service members and nuclear launch codes — should be contained in modular data centers that are operated by artificial intelligence systems for an additional layer of protection.
Some agencies have turned to a few containerized data centers because their small size makes them easy to move and to keep cool. These units also can be used to operate a remote - but private - cloud service for a larger network.
The Department of Defense uses two data centers that cool their servers by submerging them in oil. The data centers are in an undisclosed location, and the systems were purchased from Texas-based company Green Revolution, Data System Dynamics reported.
In some cases, containerized data centers are physically sealed and no one can enter the container until its lifespan expires. At the end of that time frame, the container is retired and the servers are “sanitized,” according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (CBP does not use mobile data centers.)
Modular data centers can also be used to run complex simulations on site, even in remote areas where a data center is thousands of miles away. Dell developed their Tactical Mobile Data Center to provide secure computing resources for service members in theater. The data center uses a camouflaged shipping container, server racks and fire suppression and can be delivered via helicopter as needed.
“Tactical mobile data centers and rugged servers bring mission-critical data closer to troops for faster transmission and improved security, making it possible to use intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data in theater with active cyber protection,” the company said in a statement to Fifth Domain. “It’s important to turn ISR data into information that can be used to make decisions faster and with safer outcomes. Tactical edge computing makes this a reality on the battlefield or other extreme military situations.”
Part of Dell’s mobile data centers are “rugged servers,” which are compact and built to work in environments ranging from sub-zero temperatures to sandstorms. The company stated the servers are built to withstand mortar explosions.
“With reliable access to high-power servers even in these conditions, troops can better utilize data to enhance both physical and cyber security,” Dell Federal stated. “While rugged servers can be transported in the back of a humvee, tactical mobile data centers provide similar rugged qualities and can be dropped into undisclosed locations to offer compute power closer to troops or other remote operations. These can be set up quickly and run from a variety of power sources, offering a containerized cloud solution for intelligence information.”
O’Brien said one of the most significant benefits to using mobile data centers is they can be upgraded separately from a department’s internal data system. The long item-procurement cycle in the federal government can often means today’s technology is already outdated, but containerized systems could be ordered with the newest technology and updated easier than built-in tech, he said.
He said modular data centers can help close some cyber security holes by offering consistency. If the type of technology used inside today’s departments aren’t consistent across the federal government, “there’s always going to be a back door from someone who’s lagging behind.”