As Hurricane Ike bore down on Houston one Friday last September, the Continental Airlines' flight operations centre, located on the 14th floor of a glass-sided downtown high rise, suddenly went dark. For the airline's pilots and flight crews, however, business proceeded as usual.
Here's why: At that same moment, 42 miles north of the city and some 60 feet underground - in a hardened Cold-War era bunker built by a paranoid millionaire oilman to survive a nuclear holocaust - Continental's backup data centre took over. Throughout the ordeal - from Friday morning, as the storm approached, through Saturday, when winds above the Westland Bunker in Montgomery, Texas, gusted to 125 miles per hour, until Sunday evening, when operations resumed in Houston - the airline managed an 89 percent on time rating for its global flight schedule.
Locating a backup data centre in an underground bunker may seem like overkill, even in a hurricane zone. But the facility met all of the airline's requirements - including cost, says John Stelly, managing director of technology at Continental. The bunker, run by real estate partnership Montgomery Westland, has been converted into 33,000 square feet of rack-ready data centre space complete with air conditioning, redundant network and power sources, uninterruptible power supply systems and backup generators.
Continental leases 2,000 sq. feet underground and another 12,500 sq. feet of office space above ground, in a hardened building complete with 3-inch-thick bulletproof windows. The airline can house its entire operations staff of up to 125 people at the backup site.
After Hurricane Katrina, Continental began looking for a fallback data centre for use during hurricanes. Westland "was far enough away to be out of harm's way but close enough for folks to drive to," Stelly says. The blast-resistant facility is admittedly a bit much for even Continental's backup needs, but the four-feet-thick walls and high security entrance are nice extras, Stelly says.
Also, connectivity options at the Westland facility were a plus. The network and power feeds for the bunker were sourced from areas well away from Houston, while pricing was competitive with above-ground co-location facilities.
Rise of the underground
With a renewed focus on data centre outsourcing and space in high availability facilities in short supply, investors such as Montgomery Westland have snapped up and renovated abandoned mines and military bunkers in the hopes of cashing in.
Since 2007, for example, Cavern Technologies has operated a data centre 125 feet below ground in an abandoned limestone mine. The mined out area underground, which covers 3 million sq. feet, is 15 minutes outside of Kansas City. Unlike other mines, the Cavern facility was created with the idea of reuse in mind, so floor space isn't irregularly shaped like other underground facilities can be, says president John Clune. The area's relatively low electricity costs, at 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, help to make operating costs lower than those in other parts of the country, he adds.
Another facility, The Bunker, is a decommissioned, 50,000 sq. foot Royal Air Force bunker that operated until the 1990s. The facility is inside a hill near Dover, England and it now hosts data centres 100 feet below ground.
"People get a picture of a hole in the ground. That's not the case. It's a state-of-the-art data centre," says Paul Lightfoot, director of managed services for The Bunker. Clients range from businesses running mission-critical web applications to a financial services firm that runs online trading systems. "We do everything from basic square footage to fully maintained systems," he says.
Iron Mountain is among the oldest and best known providers of underground storage and data centre space. Known for storing everything from backup tapes to old movie reels in The Underground, its repurposed limestone mine in rural Pennsylvania, the company has seen its electronic storage and leased data centre space business increase while its traditional paper record storage business has slowed.
"It is now the fastest growing component of our business," says vice president Charles Doughty. In addition to leasing rack-ready space, the company offers data centre design, hosting and management services.
But while interest is up, the number of actual customers leasing space in its underground data centres remains small. Iron Mountain counts five operating data centres in its underground facility, including its own. But with 60,000 square feet of available data centre space and another 145 acres undeveloped in the facility, Iron Mountain has plenty of room for more.