New NSA data center reported plagued by meltdowns

Oct. 8, 2013 at 2:00 AM
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BLUFFDALE, Utah, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- A huge new data-storage facility for U.S. spying is plagued by chronic electrical surges that have prevented the center's opening, documents and officials say.

The classified National Security Agency Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center at Camp Williams, near Bluffdale, Utah, was supposed to open at least part of the facility this week after a year of delays.

But it hasn't been able to because of 10 explosive meltdowns in the past 14 months that have destroyed close to $1 million in machinery, project documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal indicate.

The meltdowns were described by a project official as "a flash of lightning inside a 2-foot box," the Journal said.

Their causes are disputed, if not a mystery, some officials say and project documents indicate.

The Army Corps of Engineers, overseeing the data center's construction, is at odds with government contractors about why the so-called arc fault failures happened, much less how to stop them from recurring, project documents indicate.

The Corps' Tiger Team of experts assigned to investigate and solve technical and systemic problems said in a report last week the contractors' explanations appeared spurious because the incidents' causes were "not yet sufficiently understood" to ensure they wouldn't recur.

"We did not find any indication that the proposed equipment modification measures will be effective in preventing future incidents," the report said.

The contractors, which say they've identified the "root cause" of the electrical failures, are installing devices intended to insulate the power system from the failures and reduce electrical-machinery damage. But the fix won't prevent the failures, the project documents indicate and current and former officials say.

Despite the report's private misgivings, Norbert Suter, the Corps' chief of construction operations, told the Journal "the cause of the electrical issues was identified by the team and is currently being corrected by the contractor."

He said the Corps would ensure the center was "completely reliable" before handing it over to the NSA.

KlingStubbins, the architectural firm that designed the troubled electrical system, referred questions to the Corps.

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines acknowledged problems but told the Journal "the failures that occurred during testing have been mitigated."

"A project of this magnitude requires stringent management, oversight and testing before the government accepts any building," she said.

Documents and interviews suggest the center's construction was "fast-tracked" and corners were cut to speed its completion, the Journal said.

The corner-cutting resulted in regular quality controls in design and construction being bypassed, the Tiger Team report indicated.

The Utah Data Center, occupying more than 1 million square feet, is designed to store extremely large amounts of data, estimated to be on the order of exabytes or zettabytes.

An exabyte is 1 billion gigabytes, or is roughly 100,000 times the size of the printed material in the Library of Congress. A zettabyte is 1 billion terabytes, or 1,000 times larger than an exabyte.

The center continuously uses 65 megawatts, which could power a small city of at least 20,000, at a cost of more than $1 million a month, the Journal said.

The NSA chose the Bluffdale area largely because of the abundance of cheap electricity.

The center is also expected to use 1.7 million gallons of water a day.

Its mission is classified, but Wired magazine reported in March 2012 the center would be able to process the contents of private emails, cellphone calls and online searches, as well as "personal data trails," including parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases and other digital "pocket litter."

Counter-terrorism analysts say pocket litter can be important in confirming or disputing terror suspects' accounts of themselves.

The NSA said in April the Utah Data Center would not be used to illegally eavesdrop on or monitor U.S. citizens' emails.

The statement was made two months before NSA foreign and domestic spying details were first published based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

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