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The Worst Disasters in Data Center History

By November 12, 2014No Comments5 min read

When most people think of data center disasters, they probably think of security breaches that major companies have suffered in recent years. While these incidents are significant and can have serious implications, they are not the only disasters to strike in the history of data centers.

1983: Faulty Early Warning System Almost Triggers World War III

It sounds like a fiction story, but it actually happened. Records show that an early warning system in the Soviet Union malfunctioned back in 1983. There had always been uneasy tension between the United States and Russia, but this incident could have been the powder keg that started a conflict of epic proportions had it not been for the quick thinking of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov.

Petrov was the officer on duty when the system suddenly indicated that the U.S. had launched five ballistic missiles at Russia. Petrov had a strange feeling about the incident, however. He trusted his gut, assuming that if the U.S. were targeting Russia then they would have sent more than just five missiles. His common sense reasoning saved the world a lot of bloodshed because it turns out the alleged U.S. missile launch was actually a response caused by a fault in the system’s software.

1990: A Single Switch Silenced the AT&T Network

AT&T is one of the most well-known telecommunications companies in the world – so it may come as a surprise to learn that in 1990 the company suffered a major setback that completely shut down their switching centers.

A switch in one AT&T center experienced a minor mechanical issue and caused a center-wide shut down. When it came back up, it issued a message to AT&T’s other switching centers, causing them to do the same. This lead to 75 million calls that were dropped across the United States. American Airlines estimated that this “minor” issue led to a loss of 200,000 bookings – and at the root of this data center disaster was a single, unassuming line of code.

2004: Child Support Agency Dissolved Over Computer System Overpayments

In 2004, Great Britain’s Child Support Agency (CSA) was reformed at the same time that a new, highly complex computer system was introduced to the organization. In the process, the system somehow managed to pay out over one billion pounds more than it should have to approximately 1.9 million people (averaging more than 525 pounds per person).
The incident was described as one of the “worst public administration scandals in modern times”. The CSA, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and their chosen IT contractor EDS all missed the warning signs. The loss was so great that they literally dissolved the CSA.

2009: Vodafone Data Floats Away in Istanbul

Vodafone maintained a data center in Istanbul, Turkey and everything was fine until September of 2009 when the facility was suddenly flooded during a torrential downpour. Employees attempted to salvage what they could, but it took the watery onslaught just four minutes to fill rooms halfway up. Computers, desks, and chairs began floating while employees evacuated. Water levels continued to rise until the rooms were completely submerged.

Customers began complaining about outages while Vodafone struggled to find solutions. Luckily they were able to restore most data thanks to a disaster recovery plan they had already implemented. A total of 23 people lost their lives during the flooding that day.

2014: Samsung’s Gwacheon Data Center Goes up in Flames

Backing up data is extremely important, especially if you are managing information for thousands of customers. It’s a fact that hit Samsung SDS hard in April of 2014. The company had maintained a data center in Gwacheon, South Korea, which burned to the ground. Most customers experienced several hours of no mobile service as the building and all its IT equipment went up in flames. As the smoke cleared, Samsung and its customers soon learned that the data center and a few hours of mobile service weren’t the only losses to come out of the incident.

For some reason, Samsung had not backed up certain data that was saved on servers housed in its Gwacheon location. The data was lost forever and came as a huge shock to the IT world. How could a company as well known and successful as Samsung overlook such an easily-remedied risk? It seemed like a novice mistake to make, and yet telecommunications titan Samsung made it.

2021: Scripps ransomware attack

In May of this year, Scripps health suffered arguably one of the worst cyber attacks to date and is still dealing with the aftermath. After identifying unusual network activity, Scripps was able to identify that there was an unauthorized individual who was able to gain access to their system. Later confirmed to be ransomware, two of the San Diego-based non-profit healthcare system’s main hospitals were attacked, leaving operations down for several weeks. All digital resources were affected by the attack, leaving personnel to deal with manual record-keeping, lack of online scheduling, and even relocating higher risk and/or trauma patients. Patients were left without access to their personal records during the weeks-long attack, leaving many frustrated and in the dark during the ordeal. 

In addition to the lapse in operations, it was found out weeks later that personal data was stolen from over 150,000 patients. While steps are being taken to inform those who may have had their data stolen, Scripps is still currently facing a legal battle for negligence as a result of the breach and stolen data.