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  • Ian Thornton-Trump

Extreme IT: Why hostile environments can be as big a threat a cyber attacks

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

Sometimes it’s not cybercriminals that are the biggest threat to your network, says Ian Trump, sometimes Mother Nature may be your most dangerous adversary.

21:51, Cape Spear, Newfoundland, Canada: Being in the most easterly part of Canada and staring out at the bleak skies of the North Atlantic conjures all sorts of images – none of them romantic. This is a harsh landscape and the litany of sunken ships off the coast bears testament to that fact. This is place of hard weather and harsh environments for IT systems; inside and out.

Sometimes the availability issue in security has nothing to do with users and everything to do with layer 0. Layer 0 is the tongue-in-cheek mocking of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, which attempts to address a sub layer found below the “physical” connectivity layer. This is not about connectivity; this is about the environment and how an IT Admin or MSP needs to face down the environment to deliver great service and reliability.

In this discussion Mother Nature provides the protagonist. Corrosion, wind, water infiltration, ice, snow, lightning, abundant humidity, and lack of humidity can all conspire to degrade information systems. If appropriate precautions are not taken, significant outages will result. Fortunately, the MSP or IT Admin can fight off the affects of Mother Nature, but it is by no means an easy battle.

The walls of an organisation can often hide the true danger. So much of the SMB world is connected with cabling that at 10MB or 100MB ½ duplex networking would provide connectivity, but hook up something new and shiny and 1GB connectivity would be impossible. It’s not that the electrician, Telco, or second cousin used lousy cables, it’s just that these “pipes” are often old, decayed, and susceptible to electro-magnetic interference.

Cable is too often cavalierly run over fluorescent ballasts and near motors, fridges, or industrial equipment and as a result can be subject to massive fluctuations in EMR. And this can cause signal loss and degradation. When you’re tackling connectivity in a harsh environment you need to make sure the cable plan is not the culprit for any mysterious outages. Break out the Fluke Networks gear and see if your cable is truly CAT5e.

Wind is an interesting and maybe a new challenge that MSPs and IT Admins will face. Believe it or not high-speed Wireless connectivity, including back hauls in the cellular network, are heavily impacted by high winds. Bending towers or moving directional antennas can really impact wireless links. The bases have to be solid for point-to-point wireless connections, if two antennae are off by just a few degrees you could loose the signal and the connection will drop.

Combine wind with ice and snow and you’ve got a triple threat to IT systems. Even if you’re not running finely aimed wireless devices you are likely to experience some interesting power issues. Ice, snow, and wind moving the high voltage cables around during a storm will cause power brown outs and surges that in some cases will be powerful enough to wreck unprotected equipment. If you’re in a storm-prone area you need to “UPS all the things” – that’s Uninterruptible Power Supply not the global delivery service, by the way. No excuses here, a simple surge protector is not enough – you need batteries to absorb the fluctuations and smooth out the brown outs. If you are in a lightning-prone area a UPS is a must-have as even a near miss can cause huge voltage surges in your power. Only a UPS in tip-top shape can absorb and mitigate this type of event.

Just like cats, IT equipment hates humidity. Many a complaint of slow Internet has been traced to water infiltration and corrosion in the De-mark (the part where wires enter your business or residence). Ultra-violet light and environmental conditions degrade the plastics that frequently guard the outside connections for DSL and Cable Internet connectivity. Metal boxes that are subject to extreme temperatures can deform enough to allow in moisture. At best this can degrade your signal, and at worst it can short out connections. Inspection of the physical connection is the only way to identify this sort of issue.

Oddly enough, a complete lack of humidity can cause an equal amount of grief for IT systems. Static electricity is a serious threat to sensitive electronics. Due to the continued increase in density of electronic components, a small discharge can wipe out thousands of connections or transistors on a single chip. In low humidity environments dust accumulation becomes more of a problem and over-heating can occur as power supplies and fans become clogged and heat sinks loose efficiency.

Seasons change in most of the parts of the world and with those changes come new environmental challenges, which if not properly understood can cause more grief than the most aggressive cyberattack. It’s not too far a stretch to say that Mother Nature is not fond of delicate electronics and may actually be the most dangerous user in your enterprise.

You can follow Ian on Twitter at @phat_hobbit

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