The emergency internet bunkers

11 Mar 2011

Nik Rawlinson investigates the impregnable underground bunkers that will keep the net running during wartime

The Doomsday Clock shows 23:54. If it ever reaches midnight, mankind’s survival will be on the brink.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has used the face of this fictional clock to plot our race towards destruction. In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, and they pushed the clock to 23:57. Four years later, the US and Soviets both tested thermonuclear weapons and so the clock ticked on to 23:58.

The clock has never been any further back than 23:43; it happened only once, in 1991. The Berlin Wall had just come tumbling down; Gorbachev and Bush Senior had signed up to Start, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The world breathed a sigh of relief, but not for long. Twenty years have passed since then, and things have taken a turn for the worse. Pakistan and India both hold nuclear weapons. North Korea, too, almost certainly has its own, and Iran’s motives are causing the West some sleepless nights.

A handful of datacenters dotted around the world would likely to be all that remains of the multi-billion-pound hosting industry

All-out war remains a fairly unlikely scenario, but should the clock ever strike midnight we may well discover, finally, whether or not the internet really could survive a nuclear conflict.

If it could, then a handful of datacenters dotted around the world would likely to be all that remains of the multi-billion-pound hosting industry.

These secretive, high-security sites, tunnelled out of mountains or housed behind the blast-proof doors of one-time Nato bunkers, are home to the planet’s most secure hosting providers.

THE US SECURE HOSTING CENTER

A high point on the Iowa plains is home to a handful of buildings.

Whitewashed and nondescript, only the mast beside them hints at their former use. Built at the height of the Cold War, these are the access points to a hardened underground bunker; a hidden world of reinforced doors, concrete floors 5ft thick and walls lined with welded-seam steel to reflect the electromagnetic pulse of a thermonuclear explosion.

Once a critical hub in the US Government’s communications network, the bunker formed part of a chain of underground transmission sites. Now it’s home to the USSHC, also known as the US Secure Hosting Center.

“A lot of these Cold War sites were destroyed or abandoned,” explained the Center’s Isaac Helgens. “Since this campus was operated from the outset by a telco acting for the Government, we were able to purchase it directly from them without any issues. Occasionally, even today, we run into a Government entity that isn’t aware the site is privately owned, but that’s usually the extent of the confusion.”

The vault doors that seal off the silo were built to withstand the blast effects, heat and 800mph-plus winds of a 20-megaton nuclear blast, but the technology they now protect was barely dreamt of when they first swung open.

“The biggest things we’ve had to adjust in our infrastructure were cooling and power utilisation,” said Helgens. “Wherever possible, we simply updated and maintained the original technology. As this was designed for emergency use, most systems are 2N+ redundant [have two or more stages of redundancy].”

Man-made conflict is only one of the risks against which USSHC considers itself immune. The site where it sits is more than two miles from – and 200m above – the nearest flood plain.

It has two wells and a large enough water-storage facility to keep running water for a fortnight in the unlikely event they should both run dry. With no other tenants on its plot and located well away from population centres or terrorist targets, its clients (“technology directors at the forefront of their fields”) are attracted by an environment so stable and secure that they’re willing to host their sites wholesale with USSHC, rather than spread their servers across multiple datacenters.

With a sub-micron air-filtration plant, USSHC’s facility is well equipped to cope with physical viruses, but what of their digital equivalent, and DDoS attacks or trojan incursion? Helgens assures us that his team goes “to great effort” with its clients to prevent them.

USSHC employs customised intrusion detection for its clients and monitors its network for any such issues. “In the event of a DoS or DDoS, we attempt to isolate the threat and use creative routing and other techniques to make sure our clients remain unaffected,” Helgens said.

THE CYBERBUNKER

USSHC isn’t unique. Europe is dotted with similar sites, each of which could withstand a nuclear blast.

Netherlands-based CyberBunker is housed inside a hardened concrete silo. Built by Nato in 1955, it was designed to outlast a nuclear war and keep those inside safe for up to a decade.

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