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Underground Data Centers Fill Need for Space and Security

As the need to keep sensitive files safe intensifies and regulatory requirements stiffen, more and more corporations are moving their data down under – not to Australia – but literally underground.

Extreme and unpredictable weather, coupled with heightened security concerns, has made abandoned mines and defunct military bases very appealing, especially to healthcare, financial and governmental entities.

In order to help meet the demand for secure computer space, Iron Mountain (NYSE: IRM) built its first underground data center in Boyers, Pennsylvania.

The former U.S. Steel limestone mine has more than 6 million square feet of developable space that has been used for archive storage since 1954. Some 3,000 people work there. It houses its own fire department and three cafeterias.

In 2008, Marriott International (Nasdaq: MAR) leased 12,500 square feet of space there from Iron Mountain to establish a data center underground for disaster recovery purposes. Today, the 63-year-old company is providing colocation services to some of the nation’s largest IT users.

The location, with 220 feet of rock between it and the outside world, is immune to the weather, electromagnetic pulses (EMP) and sunspots. There are no roofs or outside walls to attack, and the single entrance is watched by armed guards.

Air temperature is in the mid-50s year round, and the limestone can absorb most of the data center’s heat. But the mine also contains a shallow 150-acre underground lake and cold water from it can be circulated through the data center in lieu of using chillers, greatly reducing the construction and operations costs.

While its proximity to a metropolitan area puts it within easy reach of fiber optic cable, being outside city limits gives it a lower potential for events like hazmat spills, riots, strikes, and failure of communications systems or power grids. The floor is 2-foot thick – the size of 6000 PSI-rated concrete – and reinforced with a steel bar the size of a large man’s wrist throughout.

For now, Iron Mountain will focus on a Pennsylvania facility with five operating data centers, but its long-term strategy involves the development of many more. The company operates 800 facilities with more than 60,000 square feet of available space and owns about 40% of those sites.

Iron Mountain converted to a real estate investment trust (REIT) on January 1 and as such is legally required to distribute 90% of its taxable income to investors. It currently delivers a 3.8% dividend to shareholders

There are several other underground data centers currently functioning, including the Winchester Business Center Missouri data center, the Westland Bunker in Texas, the Granite Mountain Records Vault Utah data center and the Green Mountain facility in Norway. There is also the Bunker in the United Kingdom, the Info Bunker Iowa data center, the Cavern Technologies Kansas data center, and SpringNet and Subtropolis, both in Missouri.


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