Data Thanatology | If the Cloud Fails


Swiss Fort Knox. Source Mount10

BUNKER: A hardened shelter, often buried partly or fully underground, designed to protect the inhabitants from falling bombs or other attacks*. The definition of the word bunker is so legitimate and clear, that any person leading a country would consider employing them to protect his or her people against an attack. But what happens when they’re not used to protect people but data?

This is what is happening in Switzerland, where bunkers are a integral part of a finely developed popular defense military system, a military with historically strong links to the landscape. After the cold war ended many of the bunkers became obsolete, as photographer Leo Fabrizio pointed on his book Bunkers. There are some companies that rediscovered the value of bunkers in terms of protection against nuclear, biological or chemical attacks and are using this [almost] forgotten infrastructure to build underground data centers that are aimed to keep safe all of our “digital life”.

Digital preservation has become not only an economic issue, but a response to an immanet part of our lives. That’s why the existing of some entities like the International Internet Preservation Consortium [IIPC] is becoming more important every day, as they are aimed to acquire, preserve and make accessible knowledge and information from the Internet for future generations everywhere.


Pionen White Mountains. By AF-L(A)

If David Garcia was wondering about where do websites go to die? and designed the Dead Website Archive as a response; now we can say that AF-L(A) has done almost the same: to create a space inside a bunker for data preservation:

The project takes place in a former anti-atomic shelter. An amazing location down under the granite rocks of the Vita Berg Park in Stockholm. The client is an internet provider and the rock shelter will host server halls and offices. The starting point of the project was to consider the rock as a living organism.

Completed in 2008, the architects say that their references for the White Mountain project come straight from science fiction films, mostly Silent Running, where Freeman Lowell adrift in the spaceship “Valley Forge”, part of a fleet of ships which are in essence a Garden of Eden. Each ship has attached a number of huge domes, like sophisticated greenhouses, each one housing a different flora and fauna. These were intended to refurbish an Earth devastated by nuclear war.

It’s now easy to see the relationship between this science-fiction movie or others as WALL-E, both going around life preservation on Earth and this kind of data preservation projects, that aim to keep safe this important part of our business and our life that are housed on distant servers around the world.


Saving flora and fauna. Silet Running movie still. Source: shipofdreams


Saving digital data. Pionen White Mountains. By AF-L(A)

Alison Smithson wrote in 1972 that “Record is made for some reason, some use, some need; as yet unformulated at the time of its inception.” Like if she was anticipating this new era, when most of our work and even of our relationships have a permanent space on “the cloud“, this need of recording everything is more and more present in our everyday life.

Some examples as the bunker Pionen Withe Mountain are perfect to explain these facts. The bunker houses the NOC for all of Bahnhof’s operations. The facility also acts as a co-location hosting center, so you can actually put your own servers here. Backup power is handled by two Maybach MTU diesel engines producing 1.5 Megawatt of power. The engines were originally designed for submarines, and just for fun the people at Pionen have also installed the warning system [sound horns] from the original German submarine.

But this is not the only bunker used as a data center. Swiss Fort Knox I & II are two high security datacenter-fortresses in the Swiss alps. Through the automatic transfer via internet into the Swiss Fort Knox, the data is stored off-site daily with a fully automatic data backup process. Due to its construction requirements, the bunker is an underground “zero-risk” infrastructure that can provide highest protection against nuclear, biological or even chemical attacks. What else do you need to save your digital life?


Swiss Fort Knox. Source Mount10


Swiss Fort Knox. Source Mount10

Switzerland is unique in having enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire population, should they ever be needed. As we can read in an article by Daniele Mariani:

“Every inhabitant must have a protected place that can be reached quickly from his place of residence” and “apartment block owners are required to construct and fit out shelters in all new dwellings”, according to articles 45 and 46 of the Swiss Federal Law on Civil Protection […] In 2006, there were 300,000 shelters in Swiss dwellings, institutions and hospitals, as well as 5,100 public shelters, providing protection for a total of 8.6 million individuals – a coverage of 114 per cent.

With this stats, it is obvious to understand why it’s so easy to find data centers located in the entrails of so many Swiss bunkers. They offer so secure infrastructure, that it has been speculate that even Wikileaks servers have been moved to an underground nuclear bunker. Having a a database that had grown to more than 1.2 million documents, it is really important for an organization like this, to have a secure data center.


Pionen White Mountains. By AF-L(A)


Pionen White Mountains. By AF-L(A)

Banks, insurance companies and security firms are increasingly making use of former army bunkers to store customer details, business secrets, archives and valuables. But will all this infrastructure be enough to make us feel sure in the the age of the data-loss paranoia?

“And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements;
To be a brother to the insensible rock…

Thanatopsis. William Cullen Bryant [1794–1878]

Or maybe we will end our days simply committing digital siucide, in the age where bunkers have our life completely documented on the core of the earth.

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* We found this definition on the term “bunker” at wikipedia more than a year ago, while writing an article on the project Concrete Mushrooms

Recommended reading:
Nuclear bunker houses world’s toughest server farm by Ian Daly at Wired
– Some other data center on bunkers: CyberBunker, InfoBunker and Smartbunker

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