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For More Protection, Some Data Centers Are Headed Underground

A need for disaster readiness combined with rising sustainability standards across the industry has put a spotlight on a growing niche: underground data centers. 

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A conference room at Bluebird Underground

Underground data centers may call to mind ultra-secure, massive government facilities like Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, a bunker complex built under 2,000 feet of granite that hosts defense intelligence and operations, built to withstand a nuclear blast.

Of course, few organizations need quite that level of security. But with extreme weather events growing more common — floods, severe storms and other disasters have all accelerated over the past several decades, causing trillions of dollars in economic damage underground data centers present unique advantages for a certain type of customer. 

A handful of colocation firms, such as Boston-based Iron Mountain, have offered underground data center space for some time. Built in a limestone mine, Iron Mountain’s underground data center sits in Boyers, Pennsylvania, and offers 333K SF and 40 megawatts of total potential capacity as part of a larger 200-acre colocation campus. Other parts of the country with similar geological properties see an opportunity to build data centers in unused mines. 

“Aside from being absent of weather, which manifests in a very reliable data center, some customers are looking for — you can call it security  but really it’s a low range of operational risks,” said Todd Murren, general manager of Bluebird Underground, which operates an underground data center in Springfield, Missouri.  

Located 85 feet underground and surrounded by limestone rock, Bluebird Underground, which is part of BlueBird Network, touts protection from the elements alongside a fire protection system and tight security, all but eliminating the risk of a “black swan” disaster event wiping out troves of vital data. 

That’s no hypothetical: In March 2020, a tornado tore through the Nashville area, wiping out out the IT and hosting systems of the national trucking firm Western Express. (The company had backups of critical systems and was able to recover its data.) Disaster events can harm any type of business, but there are some sectors with heightened reliability and compliance needs: finance, health care and government. 

“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in: Utopia is being in an environment with no risks,” Murren added. 

Many of the perks of underground data centers are innate to the environment itself. 

Temperatures underground are tepid, stable and predictable year-round, making underground locations potentially more manageable to cool. In southwest Virginia, a group of local officials developed an innovative proposal: using old mines, which have gone unused for years and are now flooded, as data center cooling systems. Southwest Virginia gets more rainfall than it does evaporation, giving it unique geothermal properties — and with that, unique development potential. 

“We have hundreds of inundated mine cavities ... they’re enormous water resources,” said Will Clear, a director at the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. “The concept is that most of that mine water is anywhere from 300 to 800 feet deep, maybe a little deeper, and maintains a constant temperature of 51 or 52 degrees. You can circulate a limited amount of water to cool a data center.” 

As part of an initiative called Project Oasis, which kicked off last year, the regional economic development group InvestSWA identified six sites suitable for a 36 MW, hyperscale data center, and four additional sites suitable for a smaller data center of up to 10 MW. The mine-water cooling system would save more than $1M annually in electricity costs and municipal water purchases, the group estimated. 

Will Payne, director at InvestSWA and managing partner at Coalfield Strategies, sees Project Oasis as a strong complement to Northern Virginia’s data center presence. Loudoun County, Virginia, colloquially referred to as Data Center Alley, is the largest data center region in the world. Southwest Virginia, meanwhile, could host smaller and more specialized data centers primed for use by national security agencies or other customers with high reliability demands. 

“We have great assets: power, land and water, and with this Project Oasis technology we think we can save data centers significant municipal water and energy costs and help them achieve their sustainability goals,” Payne said.