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Data Center Design

Mountains, missile silos and churches: Extreme datacentre locations

Microsoft recently took a leaf out of Jules Verne’s books and began running a deep sea datacentre 20,000 leagues under the sea.

Codenamed Project Natick, the idea was to create a self-contained datacentre on the naturally-cooled ocean floor. The trial run lasted 105 days and saw the 8ft container placed 30ft under the Pacific Ocean just off the California coast.

But it’s not the only company to put servers to the test in extreme locations. Here’s a few more unusual places you can find datacentres around the world.

Going underground

Underground datacentres – both in naturally-occurring caves and man-made mines, are becoming increasingly common. Iron Mountain runs a 1.7 million square feet site in a former Limestone mine in western Pennsylvania, while SubTropolis is another Limestone-based site just outside Kansas City. In Asia, Sun Microsystems created a datacentre within a 100 metre deep coal mine in the Chubu region on Japan's Honshu Island.

In Europe, the Ledfal mine datacentre is a 1.3 million square foot space built from a site previously used to mine for the mineral Olivine. We talked to the site’s owners about the challenges of turning a mine within a mountain into prime hosting space.

Over the last few years, Iceland and Northern Europe have become a hotbed of naturally-cooled datacentres that use the ice-cold Fjords to reduce their Carbon Footprint. However, sometimes the local geography can get a bit hot and filled with magma. Verne Global’s datacentre in Iceland makes use of the geothermic activity in the area, and it’s also volcano-proof.

Mighty military

Cold War paranoia means there’s no shortage of former military sites that offer the high levels of resilience today’s datacentres require. In Sweden, a former Cold War nuclear bunker hidden below the city of Stockholm has been transformed into an epic datacentre that would make any Bond villain proud. Across the border in Norway, the Green Mountain site is another hydro-electric, water–cooled centre, this time built into a former NATO ammunition store within a mountain.

Both the US and the UK have sites built out of former military bases: The UK’s Greenham Common is a former airbase that hosted nuclear missiles, while in Iowa there’s a site previously home to all sorts of EMP-proof military electronics. A site in Texas originally built in the 80s by an oil company in case of the end of civilisation, not only promises high uptime, but somewhere to work in peace during the apocalypse.

While we live in a world increasingly worried about cyber-based warfare, there’s still plenty of regular on-the-ground wars going on. And with large and sometimes long-term deployments comes the need for datacentres. UK-based Cannon Technologies creates hardy, modular systems that can be dropped into any hostile territory and quickly put to work. Our own Nick Booth wrote about finding bullet holes in the cases after they’ve finished their tours of duty. 

Waterborne

Microsoft isn’t the only company to have taken hosting to the deep blue either, though most are placed above sea level. Sealand, a former WW2 anti-aircraft platform off the UK coast turned world’s best known Micronation, was for a while an “anything goes” server farm that hosted data some countries may find offensive.

Back in 2013 many thought Google’s mysterious flotilla was realisation of a floating datacentre patent the company has registered a few years previously. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, but another company called Nautilus Data Technologies has successfully brought the idea to life using a massive converted ocean barge and christened their maiden ship Eli M after the CEO’s mother.

In Florida, City Hall IT workers repurposed a 770,000 gallon water tank (complete with eight inch-thick concrete walls) in order to protect against incoming hurricanes, the logic being that it must be as good at keeping water out as it used to be at holding it in.

Holy hosting

Promises of about 99.999% uptime are all well and good, but sometimes you might feel better knowing you’ve got the Lord watching over you. The 19th century Torre Girona chapel in Barcelona, Spain, is now known as the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre and home to the MareNostrum supercomputer. Meanwhile, a bunker built underneath an Orthodox Christian cathedral in Helsinki, Finland, hosts a datacentre that is also used to heat nearby homes.

Shopping malls

Times have been tough for shop owners in recent years. So what do you do if entire shopping centres go out of business? Fill them with severs! Locations all across the US are being repurposed, and many are finding new life, including sites at Indianapolis and Maryland.

The South Pole

All those scientists at the South Pole running experiments need data centres. The IceCube Observatory in Antarctica has its own 150-server datacentre and dedicated IT team (at least in summer). Best wrap up warm.

The one that never was: The giant particle accelerator

We all know there’s a particles accelerator underneath the Alps in Switzerland, but did you know there’s an even bigger one in Texas? Cancelled before completion in 1993, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was due to be 54 miles long (compared to the Large Hardon Collider’s 17 miles). Building was halted after some 15 miles of tunnels were built and $2 billion spent. The site was bought for just $6.5 million in 2006 and plans were made to convert the site into the “Collider Data Centre”, but stalled after one of its new owners hit their head in a fall and died. A chemical plant bought the site for just $5million in 2011.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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