NSA's Massive Utah Datacenter Having Serious Electrical Problems: Has Already Had 10 Fiery Explosions

from the frying-our-data dept

It's no secret that government computing projects tend to be something of a boondoggle for government contractors. There are way too many stories of projects that are massively over-budget while never actually working. It's almost to be expected these days. Still, when it came to the NSA's infamous Utah data center they've been building over the past few years, you would have thought that maybe these guys would plan things out a little more carefully. While we can mock the NSA for the lies and misleading statements they make to the public, most people agree that they do have pretty damn good technical skills.

But, no, it appears that the Bluffdale data center is a complete mess. The data center, which was supposed to open up last month, has apparently been massively delayed due to major electrical problems -- and we're not just talking about some issues with not having enough power, but with setting stuff on fire:
According to the Wall Street Journal, the data center's electrical problems include "arc failures," a.k.a. "a flash of lightning inside a 2-foot box," which results in fiery explosions, melted metal and circuit failure. More terrifying, this has happened ten times, most recently on September 25, reports the WSJ, which reviewed project documents and reports and talked to contractors involved. The report blames the NSA "fast tracking" the Utah project and thus bypassing "regular quality controls in design and construction." Whoops.
Whoops indeed. Apparently the NSA was in such a rush to store all our data that it almost burned down its own data center. Good thing they're getting a tax break on all that electricity they're using.

Also, it appears that there's a fair bit of sniping going on, as some people claim they knew this was going to happen all along, while others say they have no idea why it's happening:
Worse, it sounds from the WSJ's reporting as if the contractors — architectural firm KlingStubbins which designed the electrical system, along with construction companies Balfour Beatty Construction, DPR Construction and Big-D Construction Corp — are still scrambling to figure out what's causing the problems. The Army Corps of Engineers sent its "Tiger Team" to sort things out this summer but they were unable to pinpoint exactly what's wrong.

"The problem, and we all know it, is that they put the appliances too close together," a person familiar with the database construction told FORBES, describing the arcs as creating "kill zones." "They used wiring that's not adequate to the task. We all talked about the fact that it wasn't going to work."
So, while the NSA has all sorts of code-breaking specialists, it appears that they're a bit understaffed on electrical engineers... Meanwhile, how long until peeved Iranian government officials pretend that they did this in response to the NSA creating Stuxnet to mess with their nuclear processing powers...

Filed Under: arc failures, bluffdale, datacenter, electrical problems, nsa, nsa surveillance, utah


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    DB (profile), 8 Oct 2013 @ 5:00pm

    My guess is that they are using DC power distribution.

    With AC power, the voltage crosses zero 120 times a second and a spark tends to self-extinguish. The ionized air that might sustain a spark gets pushed in the opposite direction, and the voltage doesn't rise fast enough to start a fresh arc.

    With DC power, there is no zero cross and the ionized air stays in place, sustaining an arc.

    A switch or relay that has a AC voltage rating of 250V might only have a DC voltage rating 24V. Specialized high voltage DC relays typically combine several techniques to extinguish the arc that forms when contacts open. They always have contacts that open at high speed, and they usually use a 'blowout' mechanism. There might be several contacts in series, opened simultaneously, to effectively increase the opening speed. The might have the contacts in a vacuum or under high gas pressure. The blow-out might be a "magnetic blowout" which uses a magnetic field to push the arc into a longer path, a blast of compressed air, or even a blank shotgun shell to blow the ionized path away from the contacts.

    Back to the point: design engineers that are used to HVAC systems usually get it wrong when they assume that they can use their knowledge with much lower voltage DC systems.

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