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Army awards $1.2 billion contract for NSA data center in Utah

Sen. Orrin Hatch said without cybersecurity advances, it is doubtful the United States can protect itself.Kevin Dietsch/Landov

The Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $1.2 billion contract on Sept. 24 to a consortium of construction companies to build a massive data center for the National Security Agency as part of the government's program to better protect its computer networks from attacks.

Under the contract, the Corps will build a 1.5 million-square-foot facility -- about a third larger than the U.S. Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings -- south of Salt Lake City. The center will support the government's Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, a program President George W. Bush started in 2008 to improve how the federal government protects sensitive information from hackers and nation states trying to break into agency networks. The Obama administration has continued the initiative.

In October 2009, during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Glenn Gaffney, then deputy director of national intelligence for collection, said the data center would support the intelligence community in providing foreign intelligence about cybersecurity threats and protect Defense Department networks.

He added the facility would provide technical assistance to the Homeland Security Department to protect federal civilian agency networks. Gaffney is now director for science and technology at the CIA.

The Corps of Engineers also said the NSA facility would include 100,000 square feet of raised data center space for servers and storage, 900,000 square feet for technical support and offices, and 500,000 square feet of support facilities, including an electric substation, fuel storage and a visitor control center.

The data center will occupy 200 acres inside Camp Williams, a 28,000 acre base for the Utah National Guard next to Lehi, Utah, and north of Utah Lake.

A consortium of builders -- Big-D Construction Corp. in Salt Lake City, the Dallas-based U.S. division of Balfour Beatty in the United Kingdom, and DPR Construction in Redwood City, Calif. -- beat four construction teams for the contract. The Corps kicked off the contract in December 2009.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the longest serving member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the October 2009 press conference the data center will help protect the country's digital infrastructure against cyber threats.

"Our nation's communications networks are now such an integral part of our daily lives that even a modest disruption could have severe consequences for our economy and way of life," he said. "Without major advances in the security of these systems or a significant change in how they are constructed or operated, it is doubtful that the United States can protect itself from a growing threat."

NSA estimated the data center would provide between 5,000 and 7,000 construction jobs, and employ 200 people once it opened.

Aside from the October 2009 press conference, NSA has provided few details on the data center and did not issue a press release on the award.

The Defense Department's fiscal 2010 military construction budget request disclosed the facility would be designed to support "state-of-the-art, high-performance computing devices and associated hardware," which indicates NSA intends to build a supercomputer facility.

The data center will have substantial power requirements -- 65 megawatts -- and Gaffney said, "an abundant availability of low-cost power" was one reason NSA chose Utah as the site for the center rather than outside its headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland.

The cost of electricity at Fort Meade, provided by Baltimore Gas and Electric, was probably one of NSA's single biggest expenses, said Matthew Aid, author of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). He estimated the agency could end up spending 95 percent less on electricity in Utah than in Maryland.

Setting up a data center in the West also will help NSA overcome a potential power crunch in Maryland, according to Aid. In 2006, The Baltimore Sun reported the agency's power needs had begun to exceed what Baltimore Gas and Electric could provide.

Dave Ekelsen, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, said the utility's biggest customers have demands that exceed what the data center will require. While he could not compare costs with Maryland's, Ekelsen said Rocky Mountain Power generates electricity using a mix of low-cost coal, hydro, natural gas and wind power plants.

Aid said the construction contract does not cover the cost of computers, data storage, software maintenance or secure communications systems, which he estimated would cost nearly $2 billion.

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