The image of massive underground tech installations seems taken from a James Bond movie. A villain stroking a fluffy white cat behind a wall of tech-monoliths with blinking lights. In a massive cave.
But as datacenters increasingly power the "information superhighway" (remember that term?), space and cooling issues become ever more critical. In areas like Hong Kong, where land is scarce and older industrial buildings aren't suitable for truckloads of servers, going underground has appeal.
Advantages of sheltered earth
Last year, engineering consultancy Arup published a report which claims that about two-thirds of the HKSAR boasts land of "high to medium suitability" for digging datacenter-friendly caverns. Five areas were highlighted as "strategic cavern areas": Mount Davis on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon's famed Lion Rock, a couple of sites in the New Territories (Tuen Mun and Shatin) and one on Lantau: Siu Ho Wan.
These areas are big (each could accommodate multiple cavern sites), and the report claims underground facilities in Hong Kong can increase datacenter security owners "as [an underground facility] reduces the risk of accidental impact, blast and acts of terrorism."
Underground datacenters aren't unprecedented. Green Mountain in Norway is cooled by an adjacent fjord and claims to be the "greenest datacenter in the world", while Cavern Technologies runs an underground datacenter in Kansas City (Bloomberg published a video report on the Kentucky data cave this July). The USA has other underground data facilities: below the cornfields of Iowa lies InfoBunker.
Let's take a look at some benefits that don't seem lifted from a James Bond movie.
Energy and environment
This is a double-edged sword. Electric utilities don't typically plan to deliver power to underground facilities. Anyone seeking to build an underground datacenter must liaise with the electricity provider before planning their digital cavern.
But underground facilities are naturally cooler. In the case of Green Mountain, flowing water from a nearby reservoir (in this case, one of Norway's famous fjords) provides a handy cooling source. But Norway, far north of the equator, can absorb massive kilojoules of heat in their aquatic ecosystem. Can Hong Kong?
Environmental impact assessments (EIA) are critical. Let's not forget that the Hong Kong/Macau/Zhuhai bridge was stopped in its tracks by an EIA issue.
The upside to naturally cooler environments is less use of electric power for cooling--which is not only good for the planet but also the bottom line. And it makes the requisite power-envelope smaller.
Land ownership is two-dimensional. Anyone living in Hong Kong knows that "maximizing plot-ratio" (as they call it in the real estate biz) means building as high as possible. But owning a plot of land also means you can build as deep as you like. You own that land down to the magma.
This all sounds positive for future underground facilities in Hong Kong, but datacenters are ecosystems. They need power, access to equipment, entry/exit for personnel, and other amenities. That's why most existing underground data facilities are converted shelters originally built for military purposes. Ironically, Asia's newest underground facility is Singapore's Underground Ammunition Facility which opened in 2008.
In addition to providing power, there will be logistical issues with humidity control and air-quality. Still, this is the HKSAR, which has constructed an extensive underground railway network in addition to sewage and water reservoirs. Underground construction is simply another way of working--albeit a more complex one.
If Hong Kong is serious about IT as one of the six pillars of our economy, we need to start examining these potential underground datacenter sites. The government must liaise with private-sector firms (CLP and Hong Kong Electric for starters) and start working on the details. The demand for data is only going to increase, and if these facilities are to become part of our IT strategy, the time to start building them is now.