NSA's new data center plagued by system failures

Series of blown circuits destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear and pushed back completion of National Security Agency's largest data center, says report.

Under construction: The NSA's yet-to-be-completed data center can be seen in the background, overlooking traffic in Bluffdale, Utah. The agency reportedly chose the location for its low electricity costs. George Frey/Getty Images

High-profile document leaks and shutdown-spawned worker shortages aren't the only problems plaguing the National Security Agency. A series of electrical explosions destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment at the spy outfit's new data center and pushed back the facility's completion date by a year, says a report.

The troubles have been at the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale -- said to be bigger than Google's largest data center -- with a data-storing capacity that will potentially be several thousand times the size of all the printed materials in the Library of Congress.

Ten electrical surges in the past 13 months have melted metal and blown out circuits in power and cooling systems at the center, which will presumably store the troves of data -- including info on Americans' phone calls and Internet activity -- that the secretive intelligence agency sucks up in the name of cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and other efforts.

It's not clear if the cause of the problem or a fix have been found, The Wall Street Journal reports. One source points to corner-cutting as the underlying issue.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the contractors who are building the facility, has apparently given conflicting information. The Journal reports that the Corps' chief of construction operations said the source of the problem is known and that the contractor is implementing a solution.

But the paper adds that a "Tiger Team" of special Corps investigators released a report saying the cause of eight of the meltdowns hadn't been pinpointed and that the team "did not find any indication that the proposed equipment modification measures will be effective in preventing future incidents."

That team also concluded, as the Journal puts it, that "efforts to 'fast track' the Utah project bypassed regular quality controls in design and construction."

Construction costs for the data center are expected to be $1.4 billion, sans the supercomputers that will operate there. The facility will reportedly chew up a million dollars' worth of electricity a month, continuously using 65 megawatts. That's enough to power a small city of at least 20,000 people.

It's the biggest of a clutch of new NSA data facilities, including a nearly $900 million center at the agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. The Utah center was supposed to begin operations last October, the Journal reports. One project official told the paper the NSA planned to boot up some computers there this week.

In response to questions about the problems, the NSA told the Journal that "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."

The NSA, of course, has been subject to increased scrutiny since June, when former contractor Edward Snowden leaked a trove of internal documents about the agency's surveillance programs to journalists. One of the documents was a 178-page summary of the National Intelligence Program's top-secret funding, or "Black Budget."

About the author

Edward Moyer is an associate editor at CNET News and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch.

 

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