Protecting Physical Assets from Physical Threats

NetBotz's new IP-based threat-monitoring hardware

NetBotz Inc. in Austin, Tex., released new IP-based physical threat-monitoring hardware to help address those twin threats. NetBotz’s products give IT and systems managers a Web interface for managing a range of small, Web-enabled devices called WallBotz and RackBotz that either get attached to walls or racks of mounted equipment, in local and remote offices, to track of what’s going on.

Different sensors that connect to Botz have different functions. One is a digital camera, able to stream TV-quality video over the network with voice. Another monitors other infrastructure gear in the enterprise—firewalls, for example, checking their internal voltages to make sure everything stays running. NetBotz customers have custom-created sensors to monitor data center levels of hydrogen—a rather explosive by-product of keeping lead-acid batteries around as backup power for data centers. The new WallBotz 500 is also wireless, with SSL security for encrypting the digital video connected cameras capture or audio over IP.

All of that sensor information can feed an enterprise management platform such as Computer Associates’ Unicenter, though such platforms typically don’t handle photos, videos, or audio logs. To address that, NetBotz also announced NetBotz Central 2.0 Enterprise, a centralized server for discovering and managing large numbers of Botz. It includes 1.2 terabytes of storage, a hot-swappable array, dual-gigabit NIC, and information can be moved off the machine into an Oracle, Microsoft SQL, or Linux MySQL database.

The products target that less-glamorous side of IT: constantly diagnosing why something failed, often from afar.

“It's very rare that I say this, because it's very rarely true. This is not a solution in search of a problem,” notes Laura Koetzle, senior analyst with Forrester in Cambridge, Mass. “They've really done a good job of providing a good feature set that has real flexibility to the kinds of problems that customers with lots and lots of branch offices, or production floors, face.”

While IT deals in information technology, it’s not all ethereal, of course. “Inasmuch as technology folks mostly deal with information, what you're finding is that there's always a physical dimension to IT—laptops are always a problem, equipment theft is always a problem,” says Koetzle. “While it's less likely that someone is going to bring in a forklift and cart away your Sun Enterprise E10000 server—it’s the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator—there’s other equipment that's less likely to be in a data center,” she says. Just because it’s not worth $4 million doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

That’s especially true for a company with branch offices. Each probably has an equipment center somewhere on site, and short of having a power-user at each site—that one person with a completely different job description who’s nevertheless IT-literate—most companies can’t afford to keep an IT person at every site. Forget a full-fledged data center; if IT’s lucky, it was able to put the equipment in a locked closet.

Being able to monitor the situation remotely lets companies deal with problems without always having to ship out an expert. “We've been requested to add voice—the IT guys wanted to be able to listen into the room,” says Mitch Medford, CTO of Netbotz. “They tell us, if we can listen to a closet, they can tell the difference between a router chirp and a fire alarm. They even want us to take that as far as voice over IP, so that an expert in another place can literally direct a person who's dispatched.

“They face what we call the cleaning lady syndrome—they take a room that wasn't meant to be a server, put equipment in there, and on the other side of the wall, the cleaning lady plugs in a vacuum and boom, there goes the power.”

Medford says server cabinets with motion-activated sensors inside, as well as a digital video camera, are a big hit. “One of our IT customers says, 'Whenever I have a disaster, my first 30 minutes is just getting someone to fess up.'” Now he just reviews the video logs to last see who touched what.

Remote monitoring can also save companies money. “A $499 digital camera is a lot cheaper than a full-time security guard, but let's not discount the other features of the devices—like monitoring all the real world features of the environment, such as temperature,” says Koetzle. Better to catch a faulty air conditioner or water main break before it disables an entire server closet.

About the Author

Mathew Schwartz is a Contributing Editor for Enterprise Systems and is its Security Strategies column, as well as being a long-time contributor to the company's print publications. Mr. Schwartz is also a security and technology freelance writer.