AABP Award 728x90

Government site turned hardened data center


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To get a tour of InfoBunker, I had to first agree not to disclose its exact location. I had to bring government-issued identification (a fancy name for a driver’s license), leave all cameras and recording devices at home and promise not to bring any weapons (they already had an issue with a police officer who wanted to keep his gun).

I met Jeff Daniels, broker-associate for his father’s company, Des Moines-based Buyers Realty Inc., and vice president of InfoBunker LLC, at the Kum & Go off Interstate 35 in Ames. From there, we traveled northwest to where paved roads T with gravel and you lose cellphone coverage as you dip into valleys.

Daniels eventually parked on an asphalt lot near a large microwave tower that used to handle telecommunications for the federal government during the Cold War. Next to us was a nondescript building. Though houses border the site, for the most part, Daniels said, the neighbors keep to themselves and they have made a point to keep the building looking its age.

The three-foot concrete walls below us extend two floors, 50 feet, underground and were built in 1968 to house one of the military’s main communications hubs. The facility supposedly can withstand a 20-megaton nuclear blast 2.5 miles away, while homes in Ames would crumble. At one time, it had enough supplies and equipment for 150 people to maintain operations for four continuous months without venturing into the outside world.

Now the 65,000-square-foot building has been converted into a data center, and the owners boast that it can not only withstand a nuclear blast, but also tornadoes, floods and any other disaster a company might expect.

All systems are redundant to prevent an interruption in service, and Jason McGinnis, whose past experience includes consulting for organizations such as NASA and the Department of Defense, maintains the high level of security the government follows.

The security measures it goes through might be a bit “draconian,” McGinnis said, “but it’s not arbitrary.” The goal is to figure out what could go wrong and find a way to prevent or deal with it – like an insurance policy.

They won’t disclose the number of tenants or the cost to buy and convert the building, valued on the assessor’s site at more than $800,000, but they say they have attracted clients from places such as the Netherlands and New York, though half come from Greater Des Moines.

Signing clients has been slower than McGinnis expected when they opened InfoBunker in 2006, but he said, “the business has proven viable.”

The tour

A typical welcome area with a couch and coffee table with reading material greeted me as I walked into the building. “We try to make human comfort a factor as well,” Daniels said. But from here on out, I would be followed by at least one of the cameras mounted on the walls, which record and store video up to 30 days; the video recordings have embedded code that prevents them from being altered.

To get inside the actual facility required several security measures, including using a card that reads a fingerprint – the owners say the finger has to be alive to make the card work – and punching a passcode into a system that changes the order of numbers each time. We had to go through these steps three times, at one point entering a small room and waiting for the door to close before Daniels could open the final steel door. The only thing keeping me from becoming claustrophobic was a touching sign that said, “Welcome Business Record” on the wall.

Throughout the building are remnants of the Cold War era: a decontamination shower, red tags on the door that read “Do not enter during fallout” and military “alert yellow” walls.

The first level contains a 20,000-square-foot room with columns staggered throughout. On one end is the start of enclosed walls that contain clients’ private data centers. A company can rent a data storage rack in a main server area or have InfoBunker build a private room to its specifications. InfoBunker works with the client to provide the space and wiring it needs, then hands over the keys, not asking what it specifically will be used for, minus a few specifications that prohibit a client from using the space for storage and transmission of certain things, such as pornography or illegal material.

The entire system is built to handle any possible problem, with precautions such as putting all the wires below the floor rather than exposing them along the ceiling, encasing fiber-optic cables with a metal sheath and making each room fireproof and secure with a metal shield between the walls. Though these special features cost more – 50 cents per square foot of metal casing for fiber optics, for example – Daniels claims the cost to rent space at InfoBunker is comparable to or cheaper than the fees at other data centers in Greater Des Moines. Because the owners were able to buy the building at a discount from the government, Daniels said they could afford to invest in these other features without upping the cost.

The lower level is the command control center, much like an airport security system, Daniels said, where two employees are sitting in a dark room and staring at an eight-by-32-foot screen. From here they follow weather reports that could tip them off to a potential disaster, video from the cameras and network activity to make sure there are no problems. In about three years of operation, InfoBunker has logged six network problems (four of which weren’t its fault), compared with an average of 30 logged problems per agent per day at the company McGinnis used to work for in California.

The rest of the floor is a stockpile of extra equipment. “Everything you see in this building, we probably have a spare,” Daniels said.

In back of the building is an unloading area where servers, construction equipment and at one time, a 17,000-pound generator, can be lowered from the parking lot. At the bottom of the shaft is a 7.5-ton, eight-inch-thick steel blast door with no handles on the outside.

The mezzanine level between the two floors is where the luxury is. The walls are a bluish purple, a color that psychiatric tests have proved to produce a calming effect, Daniels said. There is a plush conference room with a high-end table and chairs. The break room has a full kitchen, a pool table and leather couches.

A “Cold War museum” on a table in the far corner contains artifacts such as military telephones with a button that would override all public communication systems if a message had to get out and large tin cans of food that contain prunes or ingredients for blueberry pancakes and eggs. Luckily, Daniels said, in case of a disaster, InfoBunker will cater in food.

Cold War mentality

Daniels admits he has always been interested in the Cold War, which may explain why he departed from his usual work in consulting with national retailers such as Best Buy Co. Inc. and PetSmart Inc. The first time he toured the building, “I was blown away,” Daniels said. Now he has become something of a security expert, sitting on the board of the Iowa Contingency Planners and participating in state disaster-planning projects.

Buyers Realty provided much of the financial backing, an office address separate from the data center and connections with contractors and clients. McGinnis, CEO and “resident geek,” who works out of a small mezzanine-level office decorated with Asian art, handles the network and security operations.

McGinnis knows of only a handful of government bunkers turned data centers of similar size, with many out-of-service government bunkers being flooded or overridden with mold. This center required two years of cleaning; the new owners went through piles of military junk and filled four trash bins. One positive find was a lot of scrap copper at a time when the price of that commodity was high.

The renovations InfoBunker made were somewhat difficult because of having to work around an existing floor plan. One contractor went through two core bits and spent two days drilling two three-inch holes into the walls for communications conduits. Though data centers are “energy-intensive places” already, Daniels also said InfoBunker has tried to take a “green” approach, putting in energy-saving systems where it could; it is striving for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating.

Selling companies on the space has taken some time, Daniels said, especially because the owners are new to the technology and data center business. “We had a credibility gap we had to get past,” he said. But that could change now that InfoBunker has recorded nearly three years without service interruption.

The reliability of the network and cost are what attracted E-Markets Inc. to switch from using its own data centers to leasing space from InfoBunker, said David Bierce, administrator and operations lead for the Ames-based company.

“Their network’s been down zero times, which is something I can’t say for any of our other facilities,” he said.

For Jon Bolen, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Westec Intelligent Surveillance, InfoBunker’s level of security and its distance from Westec’s West Des Moines operations (which would likely separate the two sites from the same disaster) are what led his company to use InfoBunker as its primary data center. Because his company provides audio and video surveillance for retailers, Bolen said an interruption in service would be “a huge liability for us and a safety issue for our customers.”

In the year and a half Westec has used InfoBunker, it has had only one warning call when its main Internet service provider went down and Westec’s system switched to a secondary source. The only challenge: finding a bandwidth provider that would extend a private line from Des Moines to the site.

Just being in the facility, Bolen said, “was very humbling, to see the level of investment that has been put into (it), going through the blast doors and realizing the amount of engineering that goes into that structure.”

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