The Bunker, near Sandwich in Kent, is an unassuming place – as the name implies, it’s what goes on underground that is of interest. However, there are outward signs that this is a slightly unusual place: a barbed-wire topped fence surrounds the premises, on top of a green metal container sits an enormous exhaust pipe. To enter, I’m required to show my passport to security.

This area is a suite, no-one goes in there unless it’s the client who will also be escorted by a security guard, or they have instructed us.

Once through and into the reception area I notice a laminate card that reads ‘DOG IS OUT’ stuck to a door that leads outside within the perimeter fence. This is not an invitation to go petting the creature; it is a strong reminder not to go outside without being escorted by a security guard. To the left of this door is a photo of a large Alsatian, the caption below says: Scrap, A loyal member of Staff 1997-2009.

Access to The Bunker

The Bunker was originally set up during the Cold War as a radar facility to protect British airspace against potential attacks from the Eastern Bloc. Today, rather more prosaically perhaps, it is a data centre. Interestingly, however, the basic idea behind The Bunker has remained largely the same, as Managed Services Director, Paul Lightfoot, who originally worked at the base when it was owned by the forces, tells me.  He says, “If you imagine the air defence network, there were four nodes around the UK passing data around, this was one of those secure nodes, so it could have operators monitoring airspace from here or it could just be passing data around the network which actually makes it very similar to what it is used for today.”

The Bunker cannot reveal all their client list.

First off, it is important to understand what a data centre does. In short, it is a place where businesses can outsource computer processing in a secure and safe environment. The rise of the internet has made it possible to process information remotely. Ray Welsh, Head of Sales and Marketing, says, “Keeping it in simple layman’s terms, a data centre is full of servers that compute things. The reason why we, and the industry, is growing is because the internet has been made available to more people and more devices and services, and this requires a lot more computers to serve up the information we surf for.”

So instead of a business keeping their main servers in house where they need to provide space, power and a team to look after them they outsource this to a place like The Bunker which will be able to look after the servers in a more efficient and secure way. Clients include household names in financial services, healthcare and retail, although most cannot be named. Notable customers include Mind Candy, creators of Moshi Monsters and MoneySavingExpert.com.

The level of security, much of it already in place when the RAF owned the premises, is incredibly impressive. Lightfoot and Welsh take me on a tour of the place – I can only assume the guard dog is under control!

The Bunker is the most secure data centre in Europe.

Beware of the dog

As we walk towards The Bunker, Lightfoot points to buildings in the middle distance. “Look at the two green boxes up there, they are inside what is called EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) hardened buildings, which are designed to deal with the magnetic pulse that is generated from a nuclear bomb.”

A useful hangover from the Cold War, these buildings house the power feeds that are necessary to keep the servers up and running. Going in to The Bunker, I show my pass to another security guard and enter through a large, metal turnstile before heading down a flight of stairs – the Bunker is 33 metres deep set out on three levels. On the second level there are two industrial looking metal doors, the first apparently is blast proof and the second protects from chemical and biological warfare.

It can run the generators for three months at full capacity without any intervention from the outside world

At the end of a corridor, barred off, little lights on a rack of servers emerge from the darkness. Welsh says, “This area is a suite, no-one goes in there unless it’s the client who will also be escorted by a security guard, or they have instructed us. The room has been segregated out and is used by one company only.”

The next room houses a computer antique from the 1980s, a reminder of the activity that went on here during the Cold War. Lightfoot says, “This was a purpose built data centre built with all the relevant protection and the redundancy in place for the air defence network so there were large mainframe computers and 42 of these air defence consoles.”

Generators reach full power in ten seconds

Ray Welsh is Head of Sales and Marketing for The Bunker.

These consoles were designed to take radar feed, contact aircrafts and get weather feeds. We go down another flight of steps to the bottom level which is EMP protected. Cased inside three metres of concrete is a tank which holds 330,000 litres of diesel. This is required for the generator and explains the large exhaust pipe on top of the metal unit I spied earlier. Lightfoot says the tank, ‘is designed to run the generators for three months at full capacity without any intervention from the outside world.’ All the generators are constantly heated which means if a generator needs to kick in, it can do so and be at full power output within ten seconds.

When we come to the last room we have to enter through an airlock ante-chamber. Various companies share this space to store their servers; there is a humidity control and the temperature remains between 18 and 22C to stop the computers from overheating. The room is bleached with white light and with the constant hiss of the air conditioning it feels as if we are on the set of Mission Impossible. Tom Cruise and his entourage would certainly have a hard time cracking into this place.

Lightfoot and Welsh tell me that no one can ever guarantee absolute security but judging by their set-up you would be hard pushed to think of a safer place to store your servers.

For more information on the Bunker go to www.thebunker.net.

Photography shot exclusively for Humans Invent by Paul Hames.

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