Whenever there's a catastrophe, instinct is to take shelter. Sometimes this means seeking higher ground. Sometimes it means taking cover under the earth. For data centers, taking cover under the earth—an underground data center—is a way to avoid catastrophe in the first place. While being underground won't keep out hackers, physical intruders are more easily blocked. Above ground conditions like tornados (or nuclear explosions) won't disrupt the servers.
There are other benefits beyond physical security for which even companies that don't need to be as secure as Fort Knox or survive the end of the world might want to consider an underground data center:
- Speed to market. There's no need to build a building! Construction can go on no matter the weather, and there isn't usually a need for separate permits for each project, cutting down the paperwork.
- Room to grow. Underground data centers are often built in abandoned mines or cavern systems. They can stretch for miles and offer millions of square feet. Empty tunnels can be framed and turned into usable space.
- Low cost. The protection offered by the surrounding earth eliminates costs like tornado-proofing a building that can add $100 per square foot.
- Constant climate. Underground space is naturally cool, although the temperature rises when equipment is brought in. But the natural temperature in unused areas within a mine is usually in the fifties to sixties--just about the temperature you want inside a data center, making free cooling a practical solution.
The Downside of Underground Data Centers
Of course, there are some disadvantages to underground data centers, too:
- Mole people. It's not that mole people are a threat; of course, there aren't any. The problem is that data center workers aren't mole people. The idea of working underground may be difficult to sell to employees. Clever design underground can help overcome this, with smart lighting, water features, and plants. One underground facility in Sweden took its design inspiration from the underground lair of a James Bond villain; the only reason its fish tank isn't stocked with piranhas is that they didn't swim around enough.
- Rural locations. Underground data centers tend to be in rural locations. This may make them more suitable for backup centers rather than primary centers, again due to staffing issues.
- Ceiling height. In some places, tunnel height can make putting full-size racks on a raised floor difficult.
- Adjunct space aboveground. It isn't always possible to put all the necessary equipment underground. At some facilities, generators, air-conditioning towers, and other necessary supportive equipment are up top and vulnerable to surface conditions.
Build or Rent
Customers who are interested in an underground data center but don't want to buy a mine of their own can look into ready-made space. There are hundreds of underground colocation facilities just in the US. Some well-known providers include:
- Iron Mountain. Two hundred twenty feet below the surface in an old mine in Pennsylvania, the Iron Mountain facility is a constant 52 degrees, partly cooled by an underground lake. Redundant systems underground will keep the data center humming despite surface events.
- InfoBunker. Closer to the surface, in a Cold War military site 50 feet underground in Iowa, InfoBunker offers military-grade security with guaranteed 100% uptime. Customers can have private rooms or even vaults.
- Cavern Technologies. In a cavern 125 feet beneath the Kansas prairie, customers can use a single rack, an entire room, or build their own space in a natural limestone bunker.
- US Secure Hosting Center. In Iowa, underground but above the nearest floodplain, USSHC touts its protection against flooding as well as its protection against electromagnetic pulses.
- SubTropolis Technology Center. The SubTropolis underground industrial park in Kansas City, Missouri, is home to a food packager and other businesses as well as this data center where customers can rent a rack or build out a shell with provided infrastructure.
The basic requirements of an underground data center are the same as for an above ground facility: enough capacity—bandwidth, servers, storage, power, and cooling—to support a company's computing needs. Whether your customers choose an underground data center or place equipment in a more conventional location, value-added resellers (VARs) can still focus on helping customers choose the right equipment and lay it out effectively. VARs can also remind their customers that the enhanced physical security of an underground facility doesn’t protect against all threats to cybersecurity and help them develop the infrastructure, systems, and processes that will truly safeguard their corporate data.