Vodafone cell customers cut off after late-night burglary

Sledge hammer, slow response nets thieves some expensive switches

The best story I ever heard while monitoring a panel at a tech conference was from one of those gravel-voiced, dark-suited, what's-that-bulge-in-your-armpit security consultants, currying favor with a traditional IT audience by making fun of Web startups during the height of the dot-bomb era.

A couple of servers went down for one of his clients, he said, he said, a startup with maybe a dozen 20-somethings living at their desks in a crappy cinder-block building that managed to be stuck in a ratty back alley in Silicon Valley, which doesn't have ratty back alleys.

They spent the morning trying to restart the server, reroute the network, launch backup images and copy them over to the downed servers and everything else they could think of to bring them back short of walking over to the server room in the back of the building see what was wrong.

When they eventually did, they realized someone had left the low-security door unlocked. Some lucky lowlife walked in, grabbed a couple of servers during the night, and walked off.

Silly Web dudes! Haven't they ever heard of physical security? Don't they live in the real world? They'll never amount to anything.

I figured the story was more commentary than truth.

It was still a pretty good story.

Last night in London, by the way, somewhere between "several hundred thousand" and seven million of the 19 million cellular customers Vodafone has in England were cut off after a break-in at the company's Basingstoke data center.

Thieves broke in a door using a sledge hammer sometime between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and walked off with a pile of high-end switches, according to various news outlets.

Vodafone admitted only to some damage to its equipment and that several hundred thousand customers lost service.

TheRegister reported the outage covered most of South East England; the Daily Mail tabloid claimed "seven millions" lost service.

Vodafone made no announcement until almost 12 hours after the outage began, and apparently noticed the problem only when its own network began to collapse.

Customers flooded the Vodafone boards, asking awkward questions, like whether or not a data center would normally be too secure to allow the network to be taken down with a sledgehammer.

Eastern European organized criminal organizations target businesses in the U.K., to steal and ship East expensive networking gear, cars and expensive items not easily available in countries of the Soviet Union, according to the London newspaper the Telegraph.

Police were called to the facility about 5 a.m.

By 1 p.m. local time the company had restored voice services to most customers.

Not to rub salt in the wound, or even highlight it as something that could never happen to a company in the U.S. (it has), the facility that got hit was not a shabby cinder-block building with hinky door locks.

It was a secure data center that served as a major hub for a Europe-wide cellular voice- and data service that was almost certainly as secure as you'd expect a telco data center to be, even in a place with a name as silly as "Basingstoke."

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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