NSA Data Center Winks Off

Edward Snowden was recently catapulted into international notoriety, when this former NSA consultant revealed that the US Government is reading your email, looking at your Facebook pictures, scanning your Microsoft SkyDrive documents, and listening in on international conversations with people who include the President of Brazil.  She was so miffed, that she turned down a state dinner at the White House, a rare opportunity for politicians and the glitterati to mix.

The NSA spying operation has had some technical setbacks in addition to public relations problems.  The Wall Street Journal reports that its gleaming new data center in Utah, is plagued with electrical problems.  The problem is so severe, the go-live date is pushed back one year.

Electricity would seem to be something that, 120 years after Thomas Edison got the rest of us to buy into his idea, we should know how to handle by now.  Evidently not, because NSA employees have reported what they call “flash[es] of lighting” arcing across their electrical junction boxes.   Surge protection there is not protecting anything at all.  Expensive equipment has been fried.  The Wall Street Journal called these arcs “explosions,” which would suggest dire problems indeed.

Private advocates would cheer while those in government procurement and those charged with delivering this project would not be amused.

No one will say how much data will stored at this 1 million square feet facility, because that is classified information.

The data center sucks up power at an enormous rate of 65 megawatts continuously.  That is equivalent to a medium to large-sized wind farm and can power a city of 20,000 people.

There are several government agencies trying to put together this enormous operation.  The Army Corps of Engineers is doing the building while the NSA is, well, doing the spying.

Documents obtained by the WSJ said that the contractor cannot even explain what went wrong.  The documents suggest that short-cuts might have been taken.  Repairs and changes underway are not guaranteed to fix the problems, in part, because the proposed solution is the same as the one already deployed.  That defies common sense.

Not everyone building a data center has the deep pockets of the NSA to fix, find, and replace, but the take away lesson here would be chose your electrical contractor carefully. Other prudent steps might include studying the designs of reliable data centers or having a 3rd-party engineer audit plans before committing to construction.  In a situation where there are multiple contractors, make sure project management has a clear view into what the subcontractors are doing.