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June 26th, 2008, 02:46 PM

Data Center Site Selection: How Deep Can You Go?

Written by Lee Kirby
Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Efforts to retrofit subterranean bunkers into functional data center space have been underway for years. But as power requirements and security considerations have intensified, organizations are not only taking up space in converted facilities, but selecting underground sites that are specifically designed from day one to house mission critical infrastructure.

Increased interest by organizations across a broad range of industries in ultra-secure underground data center space is being fueled by projected energy, security and regulatory benefits relative to aboveground alternatives. From reduced cooling expenditures to enhanced security from blast hardened, weatherproof design, site selection for Mission Critical Real Estate (MCRE) is trending towards subterranean facilities that can greatly reduce risk and vulnerability to unpredictable elements. While MCRE is an emerging acronym, it represents an established and growing category of real estate with stringent requirements that go beyond a traditional building space.

Examples of organizations turning their attention to subterranean MCRE abound:

• In early 2008, Wikia Search, a search engine brought to market by the founders of Wikipedia, launched via servers housed in the United States Secure Hosting Center (USSHC) ultra-secure underground hosting facility;

• This past fall Sun Microsystems announced a joint venture that will place self-contained computing facilities in a dormant Japanese coal mine;

• StrataSpace has built out a 500,000 square foot subterranean data center facility near Lousville, Kentucky;

• PHNS, a solutions provider serving hospitals and healthcare customers, developed a subterranean data center located 85 feet underground in a disaster-proof solid limestone cave near Springfield, Missouri; and

• Cavern Technologies has a 200,000 square foot underground facility just outside Kansas City.

This paper will highlight key benefits offered by underground facilities – particularly data center space specifically designed and constructed for mission critical infrastructure from day one. While organizations are motivated by myriad factors when it comes to data center site selection, this paper will focus on those that are consistently top of mind:

• Power and Cooling
• Security
• Green Standards
• Protection from Natural Disasters

Power and Cooling

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report released last year, energy usage at data centers doubled to roughly 60 billion kilowatt hours of electricity between 2000 and 2006. Moreover, the Uptime Institute estimates that a Tier IV facility requires $22,000 of power and cooling infrastructure for every kilowatt that gets used for processing.

While various energy efficiency strategies are being employed across the data center, power and cooling needs are still headed just one way – up. In citing key motivations behind its Japanese underground data center plans, Sun noted that the site temperature will be a constant 59 degrees Fahrenheit year round and ground water will be used for the coolant. Translation: no air-conditioning will be required outside of Sun’s data center containers, delivering electricity cost savings that the group estimates will save up to $9 million annually if 30,000 server cores were run.

Similarly, StrataSpace, which is building out a 500,000 square foot ultra-secure subterranean facility, can offer would-be tenants a consistent temperature averaging between 60-70 degrees year round. This spares facility managers from wild temperature swings that make it difficult to predict – and control – energy costs in an aboveground facility. StrataSpace estimates that total HVAC energy consumption can be reduced by 8.9% as compared to a standard above ground data center facility, delivering annual HVAC savings of roughly one-half million dollars.

Underground site selection is an increasingly appealing alternative for organizations that require a high number of cooling days because they are situated in geographically mild or warm areas of the country. In the case of StrataSpace for example, standard ambient air in Louisville has 1,443 cooling degree days (CDD ) in a season, compared to what StrataSpace estimates is 600 cooling degree days in their facility when fully occupied. The difference results in an estimated 28% reduction in peak hour cooling costs. And because underground ambient temperatures do not spike wildly, utility costs are reduced because HVAC equipment can operate at a lower temperature.


Data center security is only as effective as the people who develop it and the processes and tools used to execute and enforce it. This holds true whether the facility is ten stories underground or in the top floors of a skyscraper.

That said, subterranean data center facilities enable organizations to reduce physical points of vulnerability and unauthorized access. With few doors or windows that can be left unguarded or inadvertently open, underground facilities allow organizations to focus energies – and budget resources – on a limited number of areas where personnel entry occurs. And because the facility can be located several stories underground and in nondescript locations, it is extremely difficult for individuals to find the location, or navigate to the entry point without an authorized escort.

AFCOM predicts that by 2010, more than half of all data centers — government and commercial alike — will have to relocate to larger, more secure facilities. The security attributes inherent to an underground facility can also aid organizations that house sensitive government information and want to establish compliance with TS/SCI (Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information). SCIF covers stringent physical security requirements, such as the thickness of doors, the strength of concrete, and access to data – all areas where subterranean facilities compare favorably.

Green Standards

With the energy efficiency benefits laid bare, the challenge has not been getting data centers to “go green.” Instead, what organizations lack are universally recognized industry standards for the green data center. In fact, a recent Digital Realty Trust survey finds that 82 percent of companies said that no clear industry standard for green data centers existed.

As the industry seeks out clarity in outlining green benchmarks, many organizations are turning to available methods to track sustainability efforts. One such method is The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (“LEED”) building rating system, a nationally recognized benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance “Green” buildings. LEED focuses performance on water efficiency, sustainable sites, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation. Organizations can earn a maximum of 69 points for building design on the LEED checklist.

The Digital Realty Trust survey finds that the majority of companies view LEED standards as a model for their green data center initiatives; The Green Grid consortium was also mentioned as a credible resource in this area. With LEED top of mind for organizations, many are drawn to the ability of underground facilities to satisfy LEED certification points mentioned above. For example, the controlled temperature in a subterranean facility registers favorably in reducing cooling costs and air quality preservation.

Green data center standards will surely become increasingly codified over time. The EPA Energy Star Program ventured beyond its initial mandate to promote efficiency in the data center, and hopes to provide a method to rate data center energy efficiency by 2010. In the short term, subterranean site selection offers a way to satisfy both existing LEED certification priorities while also carving a path to meeting future green data center measurement standards.

Protection from Natural Disasters

Natural disasters and deliberate, more sinister threats to mission critical facilities remain top of mind when it comes to site selection. Each geographic region has its own risks, though when it comes to natural disasters that are weather related, aboveground facilities will always face a certain level of vulnerability.

Selecting a specifically designed subterranean space can eliminate or mitigate many of these natural disaster risks. Underground facilities are increasingly being built using blast-hardened limestone, creating an environment that is weather proof, protected from natural disasters and safeguarded from nearly any conventional weapon.

The site selection benefits of choosing this type of underground facility are not confined to protecting the space itself, but the equipment that resides inside. This is because all key infrastructure – including generators, fuel storage and chiller plants – is situated underground and out of danger from natural disasters and extreme elements. By eliminating exposure to outdoor elements, organizations can realize cost efficiency benefits by extending the lifespan of the building component that would typically occur due to wear and tear from aboveground elements.


With rapidly escalating power, space and security requirements, Mission Critical Real Estate (MCRE) site selection represents one of the most significant decisions an organization can make to ensure that current and future data needs are met. From real estate developers charged with finding cost effective, secure and scalable data center space for Fortune 1000 clients, to government organizations evaluating colocation facilities best suited to safeguard sensitive government information, subterranean facilities have emerged as an appealing alternative to aboveground alternatives.

About the Author:
Lee Kirby is Vice President & General Manager with Lee Technologies
Benjamin J. Pasley, Jr. is a Manager with Lee Technologies.