Hardened Clouds: Electromagnetic Pulse Protection in the Data Centre Industry


Alexander Taylor



Based on long-term fieldwork in the data centre industry, this project examines the growing role that electromagnetic pulse (EMP) protection is playing in the making and selling of data centre security. EMPs are powerful bursts of electromagnetic radiation primarily produced by high-altitude nuclear detonations. The fields of energy generated by EMPs can induce destructive high-voltage surges in electronic equipment located within the range of the burst. In policy documents and the popular press, EMP events are often represented as entailing the prolonged loss of power grids, computer systems and lifeline infrastructures on a potentially continental scale.

Once predominantly the concern of Cold War military scientists and aerospace engineers, over the last two decades the EMP threat has steadily moved onto national security agendas around the world, amidst much public and political debate. The data centre industry, in particular, has emerged at the forefront of EMP preparedness. Growing numbers of facility operators are taking anticipatory measures to ‘harden’ their IT equipment against EMPs, with the aim of ensuring the continued uptime of their cloud computing services in the face of potentially extreme data outages. ‘Hardening’ describes a range of sociotechnical practices enacted to shield computing equipment from electromagnetic radiation. This can take the form of fitting specialised surge protection filters to power sources, surrounding cables with layers of conductive material, or enclosing IT equipment in electromagnetic field-proof cabinets, amongst many other modifications. Undertaking these structural adjustments, along with the necessary testing and certification procedures, is a long, arduous and expensive process.

In contrast to the image of soft and fluffy immateriality that the ‘cloud’ metaphor might conjure, the hardened data centre presents us with an excessively material and distinctly un-cloudlike infrastructure. The capacity to offer protection for such low probability but potentially high-impact threats like EMP is fast becoming a key sign of a robust and all-encompassing commitment to security in the data centre industry. In the competitive world of commercial data centres, where any accusation of inadequate security will result in loss of current and future business, considerable debate is thickening around the possibilities and promises of ‘pulse protection’. For some, it is a waste of money that capitalises on apocalyptic imaginaries of the end of the digital world. For others, it represents the pinnacle of data centre security and a worthwhile investment to prevent extreme data loss and downtime events.

Tracing the contours of this debate through a close ethnographic analysis of the hardening and marketing of ‘EMP-proof’ data centres, this project examines how the EMP threat arises in the data centre industry as a security concern and a commercial opportunity. It follows data centre security practitioners and shielding engineers as they engage in the sociotechnical, political and material ‘field-work’ of reconfiguring relations between electromagnetic fields and critical computing infrastructure through prisms of profitability and preparedness. In doing so, this research propels studies of disaster capitalism, infrastructure security and the material culture of cloud computing through new ethnographic and conceptual terrains, exploring for the first time how fields of electromagnetic energy are being brought into political organisation as threats to the data-based futures of an increasingly technology-dependent humanity.