Moving data to the mountain

The idea of trucking records to a hidden, blastproof underground storage facility sounds so very 1950s, but increased regulation and electronic delivery systems have stoked the demand for Iron Mountain's off-site archiving services.

The drive from the Pittsburgh airport to the secret underground facility winds through rolling Pennsylvania farmlands and woods, past quaint old churches and through tiny towns that time has overlooked. The access road to the site is unmarked, but written directions say to turn left just after a certain picnic shelter.

A guard stops the car and searches it. Satisfied that the visitors don't have weapons, cameras or tape recorders, he advises driving forward to the next checkpoint and honking the horn. There, at the mouth of an old limestone mine, a massive metal gate grinds open, admitting the car to an underground guard post for more searches and interrogations.

Just when it seems that every conceivable security measure has been attended to, a guard hands the visitors a fire extinguisher and says it must be carried in their vehicle wherever it might travel in the 20 miles of tunnels that run through the mine.

One might reasonably assume that this records-storage facility, owned by Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc., is just miles of tape racks and filing cabinets. It is that, but it also houses a 130-acre underground city, where 1,900 people work for 110 companies and government agencies. It has its own data center, bus service, fire department and power plant, as well as a water system with a five-acre underground reservoir.

The facility is a vast catacomb 200 feet below the surface, where electric golf carts scurry among mostly unmarked rooms and vaults with climates tailored for the treasures they house—paper documents, digital magnetic media, microfilm, video and audio tapes, photographs, original prints of Hollywood films, human tissue samples and things Iron Mountain won't tell you about. The exact location of this, the largest underground storage facility in the world, is revealed only on a need-to-know basis.

Digging at the mine began in 1902. It produced limestone for U.S. Steel Corp.'s nearby mills until it was abandoned in 1950. Four years later, a company Iron Mountain later acquired converted it into an atomic bomb shelter for customers' vital records and, if necessary, customers' executives.

Over the ensuing decades, Hollywood studios sent their precious original films there for long-term storage, federal agencies sent sensitive records and the people who created them there for secrecy and safety, and corporations sent their vital paper records there for archiving. Not much changed over those years.

New Rules

Then came the scandals on Wall Street—at Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom and dozens of other companies. Congress, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the stock exchanges reacted with a raft of new record-keeping and archiving rules and regulations, while employees, shareholders and customers unleashed a torrent of litigation.

Even in situations where no legal requirement for archiving exists, judges in corporate governance lawsuits are demanding backup files of electronic records, most notably e-mail messages. Companies that can't produce them often settle the suits on unfavorable terms and sometimes pay stiff fines.

In response to the resulting surge in demand for safe and secure digital records storage, Iron Mountain earlier this year opened a 5,000-sq.-ft. data center inside its secret underground facility. The data center includes 24TB of storage capacity and the equivalent of 1,586 T1 communication lines connecting it to the world above.

The $1.5 billion company also rolled out a digital records archiving service that customers can use to send the Pennsylvania facility document scans, e-mail and instant messages, financial records, Web content, images and anything else that can be put into digital form.

So what was first a limestone mine and then a facility where companies shipped paper records and magnetic media to protect them from atomic blasts has been transformed once again, this time into a place where companies can send and retrieve their digital archives over private WAN links or through the Internet, bypassing the guards and the big steel gate.

An IT vice president at a large New York brokerage, who asked not to be named, says his company sends Iron Mountain some 2 million e-mails and instant messages per week. The messages flow continuously over two dedicated lines—one to a data center in Boston, the other to the Pennsylvania facility. The company has also set up an encrypted virtual private network (VPN) over the Internet as an emergency backup channel.

The IT manager says Iron Mountain writes two copies of the brokerage's message traffic to nonerasable WORM (write once, read many) media, in accordance with a new SEC requirement. He says outsourcing the job met the company's four goals: fast implementation, distributed user access to archived messages, good audit trails on user access and compliance with federal regulations.

Outsourcing message archiving was also attractive because it would have been too time-consuming and expensive to set up the WORM infrastructure in-house and provide two separate physical facilities for media storage, the manager says.

But he acknowledges that the arrangement carries with it some worries. "You are entrusting very sensitive data to an external vendor, so that's always a concern," he says.

Digital records archiving is a logical function to outsource, says Alan Pelz-Sharpe, an analyst at the Boston office of Ovum Inc., an IT research firm. But even a company that specializes in archiving and uses state-of-the-art technology can't address problems that occur before records can be captured by a records management system. "Typically, the business processes are not in place, and some of the data is in paper, some is electronic, some is in attachments to e-mail, and guess what? They have no idea which is which and where it is," he says.

The Digital Archive

In Iron Mountain's system, a front-end processor running at its data center takes incoming records and applies customer-supplied business rules that specify retention periods, adds tags to aid in information auditing and retrieval, applies digital fingerprints and provides other records management and security functions. It writes the records to disk and later to tape, while creating a searchable index that's accessible by the customer via a Web browser (see diagram). Destruction of records can occur automatically, based on customer-supplied rules, or by customer command.

The Digital Archive service, which costs about $12 per month per gigabyte, is a remote records management system that applies file-level logic and accessibility to information for compliance and other purposes. Iron Mountain offers a remote service called Electronic Vaulting for off-site bulk data protection for disaster recovery.

For whatever purpose—disaster recovery, legal compliance or simply preserving corporate history—Iron Mountain's old mine will receive more and more of its inventory electronically, says the IT vice president at the New York brokerage. His firm is likely to move in that direction as it begins to bypass paper entirely. "Records will be digital to start with," the IT manager says. "It will be a natural progression over time."

Moving Data to the Mountain
In the 1950s, a Pennsylvania mine served as a bomb shelter for companies' executives and records.
In the 1950s, a Pennsylvania mine served as a bomb shelter for companies' executives and records.
In the 1950s, a Pennsylvania mine served as a bomb shelter for companies' executives and records.
Today, a data center in the former mine receives archival records over the Internet.
Today, a data center in the former mine receives archival records over the Internet.
Today, a data center in the former mine receives archival records over the Internet.

Photos courtesy of Iron Mountain Inc.

Iron Mountain's Digital Archive Service

Paper records and magnetic media no longer have to be trucked into Iron Mountain's underground facility. Now, digital archives can be sent and retrieved electronically.

Iron Mountain's Digital Archive Service

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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