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Snap, crackle, pop: Electrical troubles shed light on NSA's data center

Patrick Thibodeau | Oct. 18, 2013
A big data center built quickly in Utah has problems.

"A great deal of the hardware in the facility is custom-built and that will also add a layer of complexity," Pace said. Problems can span from the human side, including poor quality assurance and oversight, to issues such as lack of redundancy, hardware faults and bad equipment. "What is most important with a problem like this is not the fact that it happened, but how quickly it can be solved," he said.

An arc fault happens when there is a broken pathway between two conductive objects, Pace said. In most cases, the air becomes the conductor bridging the gap between these two objects, which causes an arc. Eventually, it can begin to burn and melt anything, "and create quite the explosion."

Pace said a possible scenario for an arc fault is when there are two wires that aren't designed to handle the electric current that is running through them and the protective covering melts. An arc fault can then be created between the two exposed wires, he said.

Although the NSA is saying nothing about the amount of compute power in this facility, comparisons are possible.

The largest computing system in the world, China's Tianhe-2, which was developed by China's National University of Defense, has about 3.12 million compute cores and uses nearly 18 MW of power, or about 28% of the Utah data center load.

China has plans to build data centers that can support 100 MW of power, according to Steve Conway, an IDC high-performance computing analyst. Most large supercomputing centers today operate with 10 MW to 25 MW loads.

In the U.S., the largest publicly known computer is the Titan, a Cray system at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It has 18,688 AMD 16-core Opteron chips and 18,688 Nvidia Kepler K20 GPUs that use 8.2 MW.

Microsoft's 700,000-square-foot Chicago data center, which opened in 2009, was built for 30 MW with the possibility of adding on another 30 MW.

The government doesn't talk about IT spending on intelligence, nor does it provide details on the amount of data center spaces these agencies have. But there are few data centers that need as much as power as the one the NSA is building in Utah. The agency doesn't say whether it has expansion plans for the Utah complex, but almost all data centers of this type are built with the idea of expanding capacity.

The size of a single data center is, in the big scheme, not necessarily telling about the amount of compute power of any entity. Large companies, including Microsoft, Google and Amazon, as well as government agencies, have multiple data centers, with ever increasing demands for space and power.


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