22 stories underground: Iron Mountain's experimental Room 48

This data center is quiet, sans fans -- and energy efficient to the extreme

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From mine to storage

Four hundred million years ago, a teeming ocean covered this area. And during a 100-million-year period, billions of tiny crustaceans died, their skeletons settling to the ocean floor, fossilizing and creating layer upon layer of limestone.

In 1902, U.S. Steel began blasting out that limestone for use in the production of metal for skyscrapers, railways and the rest of the nation's booming infrastructure. By 1950, U.S. Steel ceased mining operations and began using the man-made caverns to protect its corporate records from the Cold War-era threat of atomic bombs. The company quickly saw a business opportunity in renting out mine space to other companies and to the U.S. government for vital-records archiving. Thus was born in 1954 the National Storage Company.

More than four decades later, in 1998, it was bought by Iron Mountain, which had itself started under similar circumstances in an iron ore mine in upstate New York. There, in 1951, Herman Knaust opened the Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corp.

While the Iron Mountain facility in Pennsylvania may best be known as the home to the photographic collection of Bill Gates' Corbis Corp. venture, it also houses the records of countless corporations and highly sensitive government agencies in its array of tunnels.

Doughty is focused on creating the most naturally efficient data center. One of his latest ideas is to drill a shaft from the hillside down to the mine's lake and allow winter air to turn it into a slushy mix that can be used during summer months to dissipate heat in the mine's data centers.

Unlike other limestone mines which are normally covered in layers of porous sandstone, The Underground was blessed with a roof of shale, which acts as natural umbrella. Water is absorbed into the ground around the mine, instead of through its ceiling. The subterranean lake is an anomaly created when rain or surface water percolates down and around the limestone outcropping through layers of porous soils and rock strata into caverns at the low point of the mine where, at depths of four to eight feet, it spans hundreds of acres. For now, Iron Mountain uses the lake water cooling incoming mine air but does not currently the HVAC systems. But Doughty believes the 50-degree water could eventually be circulated to the data center and back to the lake to naturally expel heat.

"We'd like to get to the point where we expend no energy for cooling," Doughty explained.

While there are four other data centers in the mine, the subterranean facility's dehumidified air and cooler temperatures were initially only seen as advantageous to storing paper, photos, film and microfiche, which under the right conditions could last 2,000 years, according to Doughty. The mine's natural environment wasn't used to disperse heat and reduce energy consumption in data centers -- until Room 48 opened.

Room 48

Room 48 is starkly quiet compared to typical data centers. It creates its own wind through the use of alternating hot-air and cold-air server rack aisles. The high static air pressure differential between the aisles separating rows of server racks naturally causes cold air to drop and hot air to rise through the perforated ceiling tiles and vents that run parallel along air ducts.

Iron Mountain also removed power distribution transformers and computer room air conditioning -- common in other data centers -- from inside the data center and located them outside to further reduce heat. That move also freed up about 30% more space, Doughty said.

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