Iron Mountain's Underground -- Past, Present, and Future

If your enterprise (either private or public) really needs to make sure that physical documents, objects and electronic information are safely preserved and protected economically for as long as you wanted (even thousands of years), where would you put it? You may know of a better place, but my choice would be the Underground, Iron Mountain's facility in western Pennsylvania.

David Hill

November 9, 2010

7 Min Read
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If your enterprise (either private or public) really needs to make sure that physical documents, objects and electronic information are safely preserved and protected economically for as long as you wanted (even thousands of years), where would you put it? You may know of a better place, but my choice would be the Underground, Iron Mountain's facility in western Pennsylvania.

Recently, Iron Mountain took a group of industry analysts (including me) along with some of its executives on a guided tour of this facility. The Underground, as Iron Mountain calls it, is a retired limestone mine that has been converted to storage needs. The facility varies throughout from approximately 180 to 220 feet below the surface. Currently, about 130 acres are used, but there is plenty of room for expansion as Iron Mountain owns about 1000 acres. The Underground has a number of features that make it attractive for safe storage. There is a layer of shale on top that prevents the moisture that plagues most limestone mines. The limestone walls were dry to my touch and the ambient temperature is between 55 and 65 degrees F.

The facility is located in an earthquake-free zone and is far enough below ground that surface-related events, such as tornados or floods, do not affect it. Moreover, the Underground is not subject to problems that plague other types of mines, such as explosive gas buildups in coal mines or cave-ins in copper mines. To enhance those natural advantages, Iron Mountain can "tune" the facility to cater to specific environmental requirements, including temperature range and relative humidity control.

Iron Mountain has turned the facilities into a self-sufficient underground city, including a full-backup power system that can last for up to seven days, an EPA-certified water treatment plant there is an underground lake, an OSHA certified fire company, numerous security levels as appropriate to protect customers and their property, and a 24X7 service operation.

Standard physical records are stored in the Underground, but the company's signature physical storage client is the Corbis Corporation, a private organization owned by Bill Gates, whose assets include the Bettmann Archive of millions of historical photographs. Prints and negatives are stored in a room where the temperature is maintained at a consistent 45 degrees F and 35 percent humidity. That is expected to extend the life of the objects stored there to 2000 years. Plans are in place to extend their lifetime indefinitely by putting the objects in really cold subzero temperatures storage.Although originals remain in the vault, Corbis sells rights to use the likenesses, which ensures that Corbis is self-sufficient. Even though famous photographs of celebrities -- such as Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Franklin Delano Roosevelt among them -- attract our attention, the vast majority of images have never been seen and may later be used by historians, writers and researchers to offer fresh insights that help illuminate that period when analog photographs played a prominent role.

Although those objects capture the past, they also represent the future. That notion is reflected in the world of business information. Though much of what we think of as valuable has since lost its immediate usefulness, its preservation helps ensure its ability to provide value and context at some later point.

Of course, the Underground is home to information stored in modern data center environments. The facility includes datacenters owned by customers such as Marriott and Iron Mountain itself.

The company is proudest of a highly efficient and innovative data center called Room 48, which is possibly the most environmentally friendly data center that exists. Many years ago there was a movement toward fully automated "lights-out" data centers, which turned out to be more hype than substance. However, Room 48 is truly lights-out except when someone walks into the room. In Room 48 the servers sit directly on the limestone floor (remember the limestone is dry) and are cooled from ducting above rather than using raised floors. Blowing cold air down is easier than blowing cool air up in the raised-floor model because cool air naturally falls.

Speaking as the former manager of a Fortune 500 data center, another nice aspect of Room 48 is the elimination of the rat's nest of cables underneath the raised floor. Trying to fix or replace cables and eliminate issues such as crosstalk in a raised-floor environment is not pleasant.Moreover, the cooling and power equipment for Room 48 is stored outside in a hallway. This reduces the heat thrown off by these elements from the room itself and has the added benefit of isolating maintenance and upgrade work for servers from that of the support infrastructure. For example, making a change in cooling equipment does not require maintenance people to enter the server room, which eliminates the risk of accidents and unintended impacts on the server farm. This also means that servers are easier to configure for hot-air and cold-air aisle designs. In addition, the overall cooling and power doesn't have to work as hard as above ground data centers due to the fact that the ambient temperature of 55 degrees F offers plenty of "free" cooling.

In essence, the Underground provides Iron Mountain a compelling case and a competitive differentiator when talking about green data centers.

Of course, Iron Mountain will continue to use the Underground to service business customers with solutions such as LiveVault and its Connected service for data protection and recovery, archiving, eDiscovery and intellectual property management. And of course, Iron Mountain can provide a range of related, highly synergistic services ranging from co-location to managed services, hosted services, and leasing a complete data center.

But let's speculate a bit. Computing environment continues to bifurcate into individually-maintained devices, including smart phones, tablets, laptops, and even desktops, and organizationally-managed devices such as servers, storage arrays, and telecommunications infrastructures. The latter can broadly be called the "cloud" in the sense that, to individuals, it is all behind a curtain that obscures when, where or how capabilities are provided.

Now, we in the industry know that this "cloud" is not what it is incessantly hyped to be. However, although they will never be perfect, the two cloud approaches, private and public are likely to eventually converge. Organizations will follow various cloud models, but the end result is likely to contain strong elements from concepts such as software-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service. This is important since the cloud is, in effect, able to manage geographically dispersed data assets efficiently.That is all about an important aspect of cloud which receives scant attention: geographic agnosticism which delivers benefits including securing information far from primary datacenters. Individuals typically do not care where information-related services come from and organizations only care that the physical location of information infrastructures plays to their self-interest. In essence, the "cloud" can be everywhere and anywhere. Issues such as security, latency, and privacy are important, but, frankly, can be resolved in welldesigned, geographically agnostic data centers.

The Underground meets all the needs of the cloud including high levels of reliability, robustness, and energy efficiency. But since the facility is not in or near a large metropolitan area, a few questions need to be answered:

  • What about telecommunications support? Not a problem. The Underground has plenty of bandwidth and should be able to acquire more if needed.

  • How about skilled labor? The Underground is located about an hour from Carnegie-Mellon and other universities so skilled IT labor should be easily available.

  • What about costs? The Underground already has its sunk costs (no pun intended originally) in infrastructure, which offers the previously discussed natural advantages. What Iron Mountain charges for its services is between the company and its customers but the continuing success of the Underground suggests it is competitive, if not more so, than other alternatives.


Even though Iron Mountain has another limestone mine facility, it does not offer all the natural advantages such as dryness that the Underground possesses. Iron Mountain has taken advantage of what nature has provided and added modern business infrastructure capabilities to provide a rock solid environment for the storage of physical objects and digital information.

Iron Mountain's Underground helps preserve our heritage storing the photographs in the Corbis archive, demonstrates how to run as green a data center as is likely to be possible Room 48, and may provide the physical origination point for the computing and information resources that are necessary to power the "cloud." That makes the Underground a very interesting place today and one that may play an important, if hidden, role in the future as consumers and businesses access computing resources and information.

At the time of publication, Iron Mountain was not a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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