Server decommissioning with an eye to protecting data and saving the environment

Here at CatN HQ we have invested quite a lot of time, effort and money in upgrading our server capabilities in advance of launching the new version of vCluster on our new infrastructure. One of the consequences of this is that we now have some old servers that need to be decommissioned.

This presents a problem in that there are quite a few regulations that need to be followed with regard to Electronic and Electrical Equipment waste and securely removing data from the disks.

As a company we always want to do things that protect the environment and we do our upmost to reuse materials where possible – a good example of our frugal attitude would be that some of the bookshelves we have in are current office are in fact recycled desks from our previous office!

With regards to our servers we looked at a few options:

  • certain companies will come and collect old waste servers but they will charge a relatively high price to do so;
  • we looked at stripping out materials such as fans, servos, memory chips, etc. and re-using them, but frankly this would be very labour intensive for us and still leave us with lots of waste material to dispose of so it hasn’t really got rid of the problem;
  • we could donate them to charities or schools – but we couldn’t find anyone in the locality who wanted them;
  • We also need to know that our waste material is going to be recycled ethically and not end up in a waste tip somewhere in the developing world. There are now a number of examples of fines being issued for illegal disposal of electronic waste.

There is some useful information on the options available for the disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment here.

The final consideration we had was how to remove any data we had on the server disks. I had an interesting discussion with a waste disposal firm which highlighted the problem perfectly.

The chap I was talking to insisted that they would destroy all the data on our disks to various certification levels and that they had this that and the other approval to do so. He then told me a story about another highly approved firm who had some very sensitive laptops that they were taking for disposal – from site A to Site B – 400 laptops went into the van at site A, but at site B mysteriously only 200 laptops came out of the van. I then replied that as far as handing our data over to him to destroy, the example he gave us of the other firm said it all – we need to do it ourselves!

Sanitising and Destroying Data

We wanted to destroy the data on site without having to take it one foot out of the Fubra HQ (as we do have a secure building). This is a fairly easy task to do but we wanted to make sure we do it correctly that followed any guidelines set out.

There are a number of official standards and guidelines used when it comes to removing data. We can either “sanitise” the disk by overwriting it with meaningless data in such a way that the original data can not be recovered, or we can physically destroy the disk to render it unusable and thus unreadable, so that no data can be retrieved.

The overwriting method does not work and can not be verified on hard drives that are broken or damaged (as for some of our old hard-disks), requires a considerable amount of time and it is not appropriate for hard drives containing classified information because there is always a slight possibility to recover information.

Even if the digital sanitisation is a safe procedure when properly performed, the limitations and effort required to apply it lead us to use the physical destruction method. However, to reduce the waste we also decided to destroy only the hard-disk platter (a circular aluminium disk where the data is stored), preserving any other hard-disk part for recycling that would be dealt by an external company specialising in electronic recycling.

Once disassembled, the surfaces of all hard-disk platters were destroyed using a grinder and then the disks were cut into small pieces. The entire process is illustrated on the following video:

As you can see from the above video, the platters are wholly destroyed with no chance of recovering any data. We are very satisfied that with our procedure to recycle the hard drive components, excluding the platter, we are ethically recycling whilst securely destroying data.

The positive outcome is that we are one step close to consolidating our legacy server hardware to new, high spec devices ready for the launch of our new vCluster product.

Nicola Asuni Systems Engineer

Nicola focused on designing, building and integrating the backend for our application platforms, including automatic deployment, monitoring and backups.