With Ubiquity, Sears is Turning Shuttered Stores into Data Centers


Ubiquity Critical Environments, a newly-created unit of Sears Holdings, will convert this Sears retail store in Chicago into data center space. (Photo: Ubiquity)

Will blinking blue lights of servers soon fill the aisles that previously offered the Blue Light Special? Sears Holdings has formed a new unit to market space from former Sears and Kmart retail stores as a home for data centers, disaster recovery space and wireless towers.

With the creation of Ubiquity Critical Environments, Sears hopes to convert the retail icons of the 20th century into the Internet infrastructure to power the 21st century digital economy. Sears Holdings has one of the largest real estate portfolios in the country, with 3,200 properties spanning 25 million square feet of space. That includes dozens of Sears and Kmart stores that have been closed over the years.

“It’s an amazing real estate portfolio,” said Sean Farney, the Chief Operating Officer of Ubiquity. “The goal is not to sell off properties. It’s to reposition the assets of this iconic brand. The big idea is that you have a technology platform laid atop a retail footprint, creating the possibility for a product with a very different look to it.”

Farney is an industry veteran who previously managed Microsoft’s huge Chicago data center, and then ran a network of low-latency services for the financial services firm Interactive Data. He sees an opportunity to build three lines of businesses atop the Sears portfolio: data centers, disaster recovery sites and “communications colocation” in which Ubiquity leases rooftop space to wireless providers.

Evaluating Properties for Conversion

Ubiquity will be able to leverage real estate at both closed stores and some that are still operating, depending on the opportunity. The first step has been to evaluate the portfolio and identify properties that could work as data centers. Chicago engineering firm ESD has been conducting a “data center fitness test” on promising properties to size up their power, fiber and risk profiles. Ubiquity is also working with Newmark Grubb Knight Frank to market the portfolio to the brokerage community.

The first Ubiquity project will be a Sears store on the south side of Chicago, nestled alongside the Chicago Skyway. The 127,000 square foot store is closing at the end of June, and will be retrofitted as a multi-tenant data center. Farney says he already has a commitment for the first tenant at the site on East 79th Street, which has 5 megawatts of existing power capacity and the potential to expand.

“It’s a building that’s lit very well, from both a fiber and power perspective,” said Farney. “It’s going to be great data center building.”

Farney acknowledges that many of Sears’ mall-based retail locations aren’t viable for data center usage. “I don’t think the industry is yet ready for a mall-based data center,” he said. “That may take some time. The stand-alone location is optimal.”

Ubiquity has those stand-alone facilities, along with distribution centers and some parcels of vacant land. “There are closed Kmarts that are stand-alone, 200,000 square-foot properties with good fiber and power and 10 acres of parking,” said Farney. “These are owned assets.”

Farney says Ubiquity has flexibility in how it works with tenants. It could finance a buildout and then hand over a wholesale data center to an enterprise or managed hosting provider, or could opt for a powered shell solution for a tenant, depending on the customer needs.

Business Continuity, Complete With Starbucks

After initially focusing solely on data centers, Ubiquity has expanded its strategy. Although mall-based stores may not be right for data centers, they could be ideal for disaster recovery facilities, Farney said. That includes mall stores that have closed, as well as those that have downsized to a smaller retail footprint. In either scenario, a separate work space could be created with an exterior entrance to restrict access, while still allowing employees to take advantage of nearby stores and eateries.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. BF

    Sears can't even deliver a dishwasher.

  2. Mike D.

    Good article, especially the DR and wifi angles for the old mall properties. One small detail- Blue Light Specials belonged to KMart.

  3. I just had a flat tire fixed at sears auto. It is cool to think one day someonce can go there to take care of servers, get a car repair, buy some shoes, and a new dishwasher (that is hopefully delivered on time and w/o damage). Truly "Where America shops."

  4. Scott

    Mike D - Sears Holdings also owns K-Mart, so the Blue Light comment is correct.

  5. Is this a model for defunct buildings in the Caribbean...especially countries building out their IT infrastructure? What would be your advice as to how to proceed?

  6. James

    This is brillant Rich! Who would have thought these old retail stores would ever turn into a state-of-the-art data center? The former Kmart in my home town was finally demolished last fall. Instead of a Police station, they could have built a Tier III or IV facility. Sears is getting very creative indeed. Thank you. -James

  7. Henry

    I think it is great. I can save you BIG dollars on electric, A/C and stucco. Let me hear from you before you start renovating.

  8. Very cool article. I think it is a brilliant move on Sears' part and if it fails they definitely are no worse off than before. A simple case of reallocation of assets... better than properties sitting empty with no purpose.

  9. Jim

    They didn't know how to take advantage and exploit technology in their stores, who would trust them running a data center? This is a stupid idea. Turn out the light Sears/K-mart, the party is over.

  10. Prowse!

    "MIKE D. MAY 23, 2013 AT 7:26 PM Good article, especially the DR and wifi angles for the old mall properties. One small detail- Blue Light Specials belonged to KMart." No, Sears has owned Kmart for quite some time, so the slogan is aptly used.

  11. Prowse!

    "JIM OCTOBER 26, 2013 AT 10:08 PM They didn't know how to take advantage and exploit technology in their stores, who would trust them running a data center? This is a stupid idea. Turn out the light Sears/K-mart, the party is over." You are a bit confused here as Sears/Kmart wouldnt be running any data centers, Sears Holdings would merely be renting TO data center companies to run THOSE companies' affairs.