‘The Province of Gelderland plans to sell nuclear bunker in Oosterbeek’. After reading this sentence in his local newspaper, De Gelderlander in 1998, Peter Benedick decided to invest all his savings in buying the bunker.
Peter Benedick (59) had worked as a police officer for ten years and in security for five before becoming an IT entrepreneur in 1995. Specifically, he began safeguarding and storing data on tapes – including documents, images and audio fragments – under the name Backupned. He started out in two 15-square-metre rooms in Lent. His customer database, at the high end of the market, grew steadily.
Three years later. While critics were wondering whether there was still a future for tape, given the emergence of the internet, Benedick wanted to expand and so bought a nuclear bunker in Oosterbeek. “When family and friends saw what I’d bought, they said ‘What on earth have you done now?’” He was defying convention, as he has done for decades.
Mini museum in nuclear bunker
The 600-square-metre bunker served as a coordination centre for health and care services during the Cold War in case the Soviets launched a nuclear attack. The Dutch Royal Commissioner had his own office and sleeping quarters there. After the Berlin Wall fell, the underground space remained the property of the Province of Gelderland for a while so that it could be used in the event of a nuclear disaster at the Dodewaard plant.
Benedick spent ten years renovating the bunker. He set up a mini museum in the presentation room with what he found on the first day: relics reminding us of days gone by, such as tins of beans with pork, old communication equipment and a diagram showing how an atomic bomb works. In the main room, he created space for long rows of shelving full of tapes belonging to public bodies and multinationals.
Tape has proved its worth
Tapes might conjure up images of yesteryear in today’s digital reality, but nothing is further from the truth. Even now that it is difficult to image life without internet, tape still proves its worth. Although there is competition online from hard disks and Solid State Drives (SSD), these two ways of storing data have their disadvantages too. “The capacity of the hard disk appears to have reached the end of the line,” explains Benedick. “And although the SSD is admittedly a fast and high-quality medium, it’s also very expensive.”
A consortium of technology companies including HP and IBM recognised the potential of the ‘old-fashioned’ tape and has invested substantially in its further development. Storage capacity has increased from 200 gigabytes to 30 terabytes: enough for 195 million document pages or 39,000 filing cabinets full of paper. The end of this growth is not yet in sight. Furthermore, tapes are energy efficient, in contrast to data centres, for example.
Sometimes collected by helicopter
Although the conditioned and completely secure bunker in Oosterbeek is in a residential area, it is unrecognisable at street level. Tapes are collected from there and brought in. They are not only transported by car, but also by motorbike and, in special circumstances, by helicopter.
“A customer was once in a courtroom in Munich. The case involved a lot of money, but the evidence was in a phone call. We were asked to deliver 30 tapes, one of which they knew contained the conversation. We have to act fast in circumstances like that.”
The importance of offline data storage increased even more with the advent of ransomware: software used by hackers to encrypt data and only unlock it after the payment of enormous sums of money. It’s a good reason for companies to set up a ‘tape environment’ again. “By doing so, there is always an offline copy you can fall back on,” says the entrepreneur.
Second bunker in the north of the country
Nonetheless, Benedick is going partly ‘online’. Work is being done on digital data transfers in a second bunker he has acquired in the north of the country, which was likewise extensively renovated in the last 18 months. “The data comes in there and is transferred to tape in house. The tapes are stored here in Oosterbeek. If anything happens there or at the customer’s premises, we always still have the data at two other locations.”
‘Traditional’ tapes are still alive and kicking and because of them, the bunker is now probably used more intensively than during the Cold War. Contrary to all expectations, the medium has survived, partly due to innovation. Benedick: “People have been asking us for 27 years: ‘Tapes? Can you run a business on them?’ The answer is most definitely ‘yes’. We are innovating with an old medium which is still extremely functional.”
By Wouter Quint in de Gelderlander published on 16-12-2021 (photos by Gerard Burgers)