Stash your data cache in a cave

It resembles a suburban cul-de-sac fringed with smart-looking homes. Neat patios, bracketed in white brick, snake out from the two-story shuttered buildings. Rubber trees and shrubbery adorn the doorways. Soft lights flicker through half-curtained windows.

But a closer look shows something is awry: The rubber trees are actually plastic. the sidewalks second as loading docks. The "homes" are dressed-up cinder-block storage bunkers. Not only that, but it's eerily dark here -- at high noon on a sunny day.

This quaint neighborhood is nestled in the inky depths of IMAR (Iron Mountain at Rosendale), a former limestone mine-turned-underground storage vault. Here, beneath a forest-capped fold in the Catskill Mountains, may lie some of the original croonings of Andy Williams, plus soulful songs by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In all, Columbia Records has a library of more than 135,000 master recordings here.

Also squirreled away in these dank limestone causeways are thousands of musty insurance claims, miles of microfilm bearing everything from bank tallies to county land deeds, and even a stamp collection or two.

In fact, a large chunk of the Fortune 500 corporations have vital information stashed here -- all part of a data treasure-trove whose contents can only be guessed at (IMAR officials, understandably, like to keep the lid on clients' names).

IMAR, one of fewer than a dozen major underground storage bins across the country, is an outcropping of the burgeoning interest among businesses and individuals in data storage and security.

Concerned about everything from fire to employee sabotage, more and more firms are stuffing valuables into subterranean vaults and secure aboveground warehouses. Reason: A lost product patent or customer "master list" can quickly bring bankruptcy.

"If you lose your data -- that's it," sums up Gerald Isaacson of the Computer Security Institute. "It's vital to corporate survival."

While some companies have long been aware of the need to sock records away for safekeeping, others are just beginning to give it some dollars-and-cents thought.

Gone -- or at least fading -- are the "Red scare" days, when companies buried everything from patents to entire board rooms over concern about a nuclear holocaust. Today's corporate survivalist surge is being fueled more by the need for protection against natural disasters -- floods, earthquakes, and fires -- as well as more subtle employee error and equipment malfunction.

The dawning of the computer age has drastically heightened business vulnerability. A misplaced computer tape could mean a lost manufacturing formula or sales list. Feeding the data-storage boom, too, are stricter federal and state guidelines governing recordkeeping.

Still, most small and even many large companies remain ill-equipped to cope with disaster, consultants contend.

"We're getting very dependent very rapidly on the computer," Isaacson says. "Too many organizations do not think of storing information off-site at all."

"it's like buying life insurance," adds Alan Negus, president of the Association of Record Managers and Administrators. "Everyone would like to have a million dollars' worth, but you can't afford that much. Some companies have to be jolted by near-disaster before they start thinking about contingency planning."

The moral, consultants say: Don't keep all your business eggs in one basket. For some companies, this means secreting computer tapes and valuable papers in bank vaults or other office buildings -- anywhere, as long as it's away from the executive suite. If disaster does strike, there will be backup records. Other firms share warehouse space with neighboring companies. Some corporations have built their own elaborate storage crypts.

Yet a growing number of businesses are burying their vital data in the Fort Knox-style cracks and crevices of old mines and caverns. The advantages: more security, as well as temperature and humidity conditions more conducive to tape and microfilm storage. Earthquakes also tend to do less damage below the surface.

Snuggled in the orchard-dotted hills of the Hudson River Valley, IMAR reigns as one of the busiest record-storage centers in the country. Once a thriving limestone mine and later a mushroom farm, the mountain bunker is buried beneath more than 60 feet of solid rock.

The Kingston site is one of four owned by Iron Mountain Group Inc. Others include an aboveground warehouse near here, a bunker-type facility outside Providence, R.I., and a subterranean complex in nearby Hudson, N.Y.

The Hudson site, a one-time iron ore mine, is honeycombed with white-washed concrete corridors, each lined with record-stuffed storage rooms. In all there are more than 250 vaults at the Iron Mountain facility. It was built to withstand about a five-megaton atomic blast.

Security is not overlooked at any of the sites. To enter the Kingston vault, a visitor must use an outside phone to call a guard, who peers suspiciously from behind a bulletproof window. IMAR officials maintain a "master list" of people routinely let in. If not on the roster, you must have the OK of another person. Most couriers are given a password.

Inside, a freeway-size asphalt road winds through a pockmarked limestone corridor.The only sound is the thud of water dripping from the ceiling 25 feet above. The roadway coils around two curves and then opens up into what could be a set for the Flintstones. One- and two-story buildings, bathed in fluorescent light, line both sides of a block-long thoroughfare, dubbed "Wall Street."

Each structure (there are 12 in all, scattered over a five-acre area) contains vaults ranging in size from cubbyholes to small ballrooms. Some 800 companies and individuals have data stashed away on computer tape, microfilm, or paper. The boxed files of the New York-based Home Insurance Company take up one building alone. Lying restful somewhere within the cinder-block tombs are stacks of Manufacturers Hanover Trust records. Payroll records, tax data, manufacturing formulas, and land deeds are also stuffed in these chambers. Some of the companies update their records almost daily.Unmarked IMAR vans shuttle to and from New York City with reams of data each week.

Like most underground storage areas, IMAR originally served as an atomic bunker. In the early 1960s, after the mushrooms were moved out, Mobil moved in to set up underground offices. Exxon maintained a subterranean office in the Hudson facility.

Mobil's office, now the IMAR executive suite, was fitted with a cafeteria, beds a telecommunications system, and supplies of food. It would house more than 100 people, comfortably, for up to three months.

The last of these corporate fallout shelters moved out 18 months ago. But at least one of the office buildings still has that executive look: carpeted rooms, plush offices adorned with finely finished desks, and, of course, exposed stone in some of the suites. Both the Hudson and Rhode Island bunkers were built to withstand a small nuclear explosion.

They could also probably withstand a fierce guerrilla assault.

"Nobody will get into this place who isn't authorized," Jack Goldman, president of the Iron Mountain Group Inc., says, poker-faced. "On the other hand, if several battalions of tanks were to attack we would be in trouble -- eventually." No commandos have yet tried to cart off any boxes of board meeting minutes. About the closest the storage site has come to any security breach is its own "war games." IMAR officials themselves will try to get into the underground bunker without approval. Usually they are rebuffed at the door.

Even companies that rent space usually don't know the combinations to their own vaults. Their couriers have to be escorted by IMAR people once inside the building. Were the entrance ever to be sealed off, there is an emergency exit somewhere in the sooty tunnels. Few people, however, even know the storage site exists -- a low profile the company tries to maintain.

There is no heating, no air conditioning. The temperature hovers at about 62 degrees F. year round, the humidity moderate -- ideal for microfilm storage. Company officials are in the process of building a humidity-controlled, zero-degree vault for film storage. The refrigerated room will be used for prints, slides, and movies. Color film can fade -- or turn pink --spread concern among some Hollywood movie moguls.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese is leading a drive to dramatize the problem -- shooting his recent movie "Raging Bull" in more fade-resistant black and white.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stores many of its cellulose relics in a salt mine 600 feet beneath the wind-swept Kansas prairie. Squirreled away in the briny tombs are such notables as "Gone With the Wind," "Ben Hur," and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." This site, run by Underground Vaults & Storage Inc., houses everything from old Bibles to seed corn. Some 15,000 "depositors" now rent space in the still-active salt mine, near Hutchinson.

One of the latest innovations in the records-storage business is setting up auxiliary computer rooms. If a company has its system wiped out, it can haul in another computer, plug into the backup tapes, and be back in business almost within hours. IMAR's computer room is affectionately called "Data-Site." The company also maintains a wired room at its bunker site in Rhode Island.

Eventually, Goldman predicts, companies won't even have to shuttle their tapes and microfilms to storage vaults. Backup files will be beamed directly to the bunkers via satellite.

For the 30-odd workers at IMAR, that will mean that much more subterranean tape filing. How do they like toiling in such molelike surroundings?

In one powder blue tape-storage room, bristly bearded Raymond Gallagher stands over a pile of computer tapes. "They [the workers] get to breathe for a half hour at lunch time," he laughs.

Across "Wall Street," file clerk Steven Granger hunches over another batch of records to be locked up for indefinite hibernation. "No," he chortles, peering out over his glasses, "you don't get much of a suntan unless you go outside for lunch."

Mark Epstein, a stocky sales manager, has another view. "It is very conducive to work," he contends. "There are no flies, no mosquitoes, no traffic. Occasionally a phone rings."

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