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Are Data Centers Moving Underground?

Information technology bosses often don’t start out looking for below-ground space. But those IT managers can be like a car shopper who stumbles across a model with all of the latest crash avoidance features. Once they’ve seen it, anything less doesn’t feel quite safe enough.

(TNS) -- Below some 150 feet of rock on the suburban edges of Kansas City, nearly endless zeroes and ones exist in a virtual state that might represent the health of your retirement account and the history of your health.

That those records — along with files kept by the federal government and a wide array of businesses — landed in a data center beneath a Midwestern hillside is essentially a recycling story.

No one, not even folks who run underground facilities, say it makes business sense to dig into the earth simply to plant a server farm. The cost would be outrageous.

But if somebody long before had carved into bedrock for you, left behind a hardened bunker that stretches below one acre after the next, well, those old limestone mines prove handy.

That’s how bits of the internet cloud have gone increasingly underground in recent years.

“We’re down there because somebody before went in to mine the limestone,” said Dan Kurtz, the director of new business development for LightEdge Solutions, which runs data centers in the Hunt Midwest-owned SubTropolis in Clay County.

LightEdge stands among a handful of companies luring the IT world to subterranean lairs. Whether they can snag a larger fraction of what is already a $25 billion market may ultimately turn on tax breaks and light bills in the years to come. For now, the firms selling underground data center space pitch their safe havens from the elements.

“People get emotionally engaged in security underground,” said Mark Kidd, who oversees data center operations for Iron Mountain, another underground center in the Kansas City area.

His national record storage firm first got into underground facilities while stashing away paper and other records for safekeeping. The space was generally cheap, and boxes of paper forms or electronic tapes didn’t care if there were no window offices.

As Iron Mountain expanded into data centers — large stacks of computer servers that allow records and software programs to run and be accessed remotely — it put some of those operations below ground as well.

Like LightEdge and others, Iron Mountain works above and below ground. Building them on the surface can be simpler because the dimensions of a space to arrange row after row of stacks of pizza box-sized computer servers can be made to order, Kidd said. Companies can hunt for the lowest electricity prices and shop for states that offer the best tax breaks.

Going subterranean limits companies to areas with underground space and means arranging those cages of computer gear to fit the layout left behind by long-gone mining operations, a surmountable but complicated task. It can also dramatically lower building costs and provide a level of protection against extreme weather and earthquakes — the deeper you go, the less those tremors move your facility — that can be prohibitively expensive at ground level.

All those quietly whirring computers can generate heat. If they get too hot, the servers crash. Going underground insulates a data center against hot summers. But the same insulation that keeps ambient temperatures in the mid-60s also requires robust ventilation of the heat the machines generate.

Google — along with Amazon, one of the biggest operators of data centers in the world — announced this month that in 2017 its server farms will run only on renewable energy such as solar panels and wind turbines.

In the end, Kidd and industry analysts said, the costs of setting up and operating a server farm largely balance out the above/below cost variables.

“If you were in an apples-to-apples scenario, it’s slightly more energy efficient underground,” he said. “Now, are those enormous cost savings? No.”

Information technology bosses often don’t start out looking for below-ground space. But those IT managers can be like a car shopper who stumbles across a model with all of the latest crash avoidance features. Once they’ve seen it, anything less doesn’t feel quite safe enough.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the IT infrastructure buyer. You only ever call them when there are problems,” Kidd said. “There’s a heavy risk-aversion element.”

As ephemeral as the internet cloud metaphor sounds, its chief purpose is to make information remain always available. That’s why large companies routinely put copies of their records, software and applications in multiple data centers.

Server farm operators, likewise, obsess about maintaining their always-on status. They have three of almost everything — generators, heating-and-cooling units, sophisticated battery power to make sure there’s no pause switching from the electric grid to an emergency power source — so that two backups are available while the third undergoes maintenance.

The data center industry has pushed hard for targeted tax breaks. Iowa has drawn big operations from Google and others by giving the facilities special tax abatement.

Missouri forgoes sales taxes on new equipment for server farms, but few businesses have capitalized on them because they come with specific job creation targets and it takes only two or three employees on duty at a time to manage even a sprawling facility.

Kansas doesn’t target data centers for special tax treatment, but it doesn’t charge property tax on new equipment — a significant expense for the operations.

Analysts say Kansas City has a data center edge because of its reasonable energy prices, access to the backbone of the internet and underground space.

Industrial energy rates fall close to the national average here.

Much of the internet’s bundles of high-capacity lines run through Kansas City because they’re often buried in the railroad rights of way that crisscross at the country’s middle.

Limestone mines around the metro area provided underground quarries for home building and to pave its web of highways. It could take decades to find enough data center business to fill the resulting caverns.

“The rationale for going underground is that you’ve got a lot of cheap, unused space,” said Andy Cvengros, vice president for data centers solutions for real estate analysis firm JLL. “There’s not a lot of areas where you can do that. The high-security guys, the government guys, they like to be underground.”

In fact, among those in the LightEdge space are a Kansas City hospital and other customers who want their data to weather tornadoes or other disasters. Hunt Midwest guards the perimeter of the sprawling maze-like SubTropolis where LightEdge is tucked away. LightEdge has its own security measures audited to comply with the standards required for storing financial and medical records.

Bluebird Network operates space in limestone mines in southwest Missouri that provided the rock for Interstate 44. The cavernous space left behind and leased near Springfield from municipally owned City Utilities draws, like those around Kansas City, heavily from health care, finance and government.

“In the Midwest, if you want to secure data, you can’t do it above ground,” said Michael Morey, Bluebird’s president and CEO. “If you don’t take it underground, you’re at risk for having it get plowed over by a tornado.”

Potential customers, he said, sometimes balk at fitting their gear into a pre-existing layout (although, at Bluebird, LightEdge and other outfits, clients often now just tap into cloud set-ups put there by the operators).

Potential customers sometimes imagine a damp space, said Cavern Technologies CEO John Clune, and are surprised to find dry space so protected from humidity.

“And people think that caves are tight spaces,” said the boss of the Lenexa-based company. “We’ve got all the room to expand that someone could use.”

©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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