Bluebird Digs Data Center 85 Feet Underground

Mitch Wagner
News Analysis
Mitch Wagner, Editor, Enterprise Cloud
1/4/2017
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Todd Murren's commute to work is straight down. As general manager of Bluebird Underground, Murren oversees the Midwestern fiber network provider's 80,000 square-foot data center, built 85 feet underground in a decommissioned limestone mine.

"It's like having a data center in a biosphere," Murren tells Light Reading. "We like to think of it as the fertile garden for the enterprise cloud service provider."

The Springfield, Mo. data center opened in 2003, with 13,500 square feet of raised floor area. Since then, the data center expanded twice, most recently adding 16,000 square feet, more than doubling its size and bringing the total to 30,000 square feet of raised floor space. The expansion was overseen by Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric produced this video overview:

Initially, the data center was municipally owned, by City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri. Bluebird acquired the facility in December 2014.

The underground location effectively gives the data center an 85-foot thick limestone wall. It protects the data center from the weather -- heavy rain, snow and tornadoes. And the constant temperature underground makes cooling much easier and less expensive. "Every day it's 64 to 68 degrees," Murren said. "It never rains down here. The sun never shines." Constant conditions surrounding the data center eliminate many of the challenges for smooth operations.

Equipment is rated for outdoor use, in rain, intense sunlight, cold, heat or dew. In its protected, underground condition, the longevity of the equipment increases greatly, Murren said.

And locating the data center underground provides additional security. "It produced a degree of invisibility," Murren says. The data center can't be seen from the surface -- not by Google Earth, and not by Google Street View. "From a security standpoint, that's huge. In virtually all above-ground data centers, some critical part of that infrastructure is right out there in plain view." The mine contains all critical elements, including generators, transformer, UPS, switches -- "It's all here," Murren says. And they're all hidden.

The total mine capacity is 5 million square feet, giving the data center plenty of capacity for cool air intake. The data center's equipment heats the air during normal operations. "As we heat the air to use it for our cooling process, we do not exhaust the hot air into the mine. Instead, we blow it up and out of the mine through a 13-foot vertical hole," Murren said.

And that 5 million square feet of capacity gives the data center plenty of room to expand.

Bluebird Network is a Midwestern regional telecommunications company specializing in providing Internet and data services over a 6,000-mile fiber-optic network, connecting cities -- including Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City, Tulsa, Memphis and St. Louis -- with relationships with independent phone companies.

The data center business complements the fiber network, providing compute capabilities for major cloud providers, as well as enterprises looking to deploy public and private cloud capabilities, Murren says. Overall, Bluebird provides space, power, cooling and network.

Over the years, with the transition to cloud, Bluebird has seen enterprises and other customers change how their data centers are used. Initially, the data center was used for cold backup -- empty racks into which customers could put equipment in case of failure to their primary data centers. Then it got used for warm backup, stocked with equipment but not powered up or running. Then, Bluebird's customers began using equipment in the underground data center for test, development and periodic backups.

Now, the data center is used to run live applications, and Bluebird needs to meet greater demand for power, cooling and mechanical systems, Murren says.

Using the data center to run live applications is where the fiber network comes into play. "Data centers aren't islands. If you don't have the connectivity in and out of the data center, what good is it?" Murren says.

Building underground presented challenges. The cavern is filled with irregular surfaces, with a shortage of right angles and flat surfaces. Bluebird and Schneider Electric used 3D imaging to map out the facility.

Electrical grounding was also a problem. "Rock is an excellent insulator," Murren said. Bluebird solved the problem by drilling a well 346-feet deep to the water table. "That gives us, from an electrical standpoint, incredible stability," without spikes or surges during electrical storms, he said.

Likewise, Bluebird had to compensate for a lack of cellphone signals by installing repeaters, and also find workarounds for lack of GPS, and elevation and slope measurements. "You'd be surprised how much you take for granted above ground in the construction phase," Murren said.


Schneider Electric partnered with Bluebird on the latest expansion, providing mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineering, design work, and acting as the general contractor.

Murren says he worked on the data center from the beginning, when the city of Springfield owned it in 1999. Prior to integrating with the Bluebird fiber network, the data center was less useful. "That gets back to the point that a data center as an island is an ineffective thing," he said.

Murren says he finds the transition from public to private sector gratifying. "We can conduct business, we can get business done, we can commit to customers that we're going to do the expansion," Murren said. Previously, the City Utilities department had conflicting priorities. "You don't know how incredibly hard it is to tell your customers, 'I'm sorry I can't help you expand your hosting product because we have a water rate we have to get the city council to approve,'" he said.

Bluebird has some striking photos of the data center; we'll share those with you soon.

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— Mitch Wagner, Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud

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