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Cold War fortress keeps data cool in Swiss Alps

Cold War fortress keeps data cool in Swiss Alps image

Nowhere is this possibility more neatly encapsulated than in the former command and control centre of the Swiss air force, a high security facility buried 1,000m inside a mountain in the Swiss canton of Uri.

The 15,000 sq m complex, hewn from the rock during the Cold War and designed to withstand a 20,000-megatonne blast, was decommissioned by the Swiss military in 2007. The same year, it was bought by Deltalis, and the Swiss company has turned the site into a data centre.

The transformation is not fully complete and, deep within the mountain, traces of the Cold War still remain: in the for mer planning centre, a Faraday cage, once used to make top secret phone calls, yawns open; and on the faded maps of Europe that line the walls, Berlin is still a divided city.

Since opening the facility late last year, Deltalis has sold 200 sq m of space for data servers and has another 1,000 sq m on tender. By the time the centre is fully stocked, servers will occupy between 8,000 sq m and 10,000 sq m.

“The original idea was to use the site to store gold and other valuable assets,” says Michael Imfeld, who runs Deltalis’s sales operations. “But then the company realised it could make much better returns by using the space to store data instead.”

Deltalis’s relatively remote location - it takes data one to two milliseconds to travel from the vault to the rest of Switzerland, and 5.3 milliseconds to Frankfurt - means that it is not suited to housing the servers that run ultra-fast trading operations at banks.

But this aside, Mr Imfeld says that the location is a boon. The mountain rock helps keep servers cool - a problem in warmer climes - and energy costs low. And the centre’s impregnability appeals to corporate security chiefs.

Deltalis is not the only Swiss company to have spotted the opportunity for data storage. With 129,000 sq m of capacity, Switzerland has, after Ireland, the second highest number of data centres per head of population in Europe. And the supply is growing. A recent study by the consultancy Broadgroup predicted that Swiss capacity would expand 63 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

Such rapid expansion has put pressure on prices. In response, Deltalis has had to cut the fees it charges its small customers from SFr1,000 ($1,060) per sq m to SFr800. But, despite this, Mr Imfeld is confident that the longterm dynamics of the IT sector remain favourable.

“In the next five to 10 years, enormous amounts of extra data will have to be stored. This will be outsourced to data centres and we offer a very cost-efficient service,” he says. “I’m not worried at all about future demand.”

The advent of cloud computing and the explosion in the number of mobile devices, all of which throw off vast amounts of information, have led to a remarkable growth of data volumes.

According to the market research group IDC, the global stock of data rocketed from 130 exabytes (or 130,000,000,000 gigabytes) in 2005 to 1,800 exabytes in 2011. By 2015, IDC expects the figure will be almost 8,000 exabytes.

Even though this process will be accompanied by advances in computer technology which make it possible to store ever larger amounts in ever smaller spaces, most experts reckon that big increases in data centre capacity will be needed to keep pace.

Asut, the industry body for Swiss telecommunications companies, warned last year that Switzerland needed to both improve the availability of skilled IT workers and resolve concerns that the country’s new energy strategy will lead to a steep rise in energy prices, or risk missing out on profiting from this trend.

However, others are convinced that given its reputation for stability and its relatively restrictive laws on data secrecy - it is impossible for authorities to access data without a court order - Switzerland remains well placed to benefit.

“Our customers are taking increasing interest in where their confidential data are stored,” says Christian Schwarzer, chief executive of SecureSafe which provides digital safe boxes and locates its servers in Deltalis’s mountain lair.

“They not only want it in a location that provides the highest physical security but they also want it in a country with strong data protection laws.”

The Financial Times Limited 2013

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