by Michael Bullock

NSA’s New $1.5B Data Center: Bonus or Boondoggle?

Nov 16, 2009
Data Center

Let's you and I do a little math about the National Security Agency's planned $1.5 billion data center.

Reading about the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) plan to build a $1.5 billion cyber security data center (Information Week) at the Camp Williams National Guard training base in Utah, I became curious about just how much one could glean about the project from public NSA budget information.  Here’s what I took away:

At first, this looks like a pretty good deal for Uncle Sam. We seem to be talking about a 1.5 million square foot data center that’s going to cost $1.5 billion, or $1,000 per square foot.  That’s well below what one would expect to pay for a Tier 3 class data center facility. Or is it?

For me, the math just doesn’t add up. According to the budget document, the power density will be “appropriate for current state-of-the-art high-performance computing devices and associated hardware architecture.” Yet if you calculate the watts per square foot by dividing the center’s total watts (65MW) by total square feet (1.5 million), you come up with a power density estimate of about 43 watts per square foot. No way that’s “state of the art.”

So let’s say you triple the power density to a relatively modest 130 watts per square foot. That means you could support the center’s full load of 65MW in about 500,000 square feet of space. At this power density, you’d probably require another 500,000 square feet for support space (generators, UPS, cooling, etc.). That’s 1 million square feet. So what happens with the remaining half million square feet? According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (as reported in the Information Week story) this data center “will eventually employ between 100 and 200 workers.” That translates into a whopping 2,500 square feet of office space per employee. Roomy, wouldn’t you say?   

Now let’s suppose this facility really did support current state-of-the-art power density. That would mean about 400 watts per square foot. Given that density, the total space the data center actually would require would be just 160,000 square feet (i.e. 160,000 square feet x 400 watts per square foot = 64MW). Even assuming the same 500,000 square feet for support, that leaves us with a data center that’s 660,000 square feet. Consequently, when you do the math, a 1.5 million square foot facility seems nutty and hard to reconcile with “state-of-the-art” anything. So what’s going on?

My guess is that either the NSA has grossly miscalculated their space and power requirements or, perhaps, the true purpose and scale of the facility is a secret. The NSA keeping something secret? That wouldn’t be unheard of, would it?

Just for kicks, I wanted to see how this would compare to Uptime Institute estimates for this type of facility. I assumed 200 watts per square foot and used the Uptime Institute’s guidelines for a Tier 3 data center: $23,000 per KW of load and $300 per square foot. Using this approach, I came curiously close to NSA’s $1.5 billion budget number ($1.495 billion, to be precise), and that made me  wonder if the data center’s budget is being built from the bottom up, or is simply a number tossed out to the public based on Uptime Institute estimates. 

One last thought.  Do you know how much money it will cost to operate a data center like the proposed Camp Williams facility?  Based on a 65MW IT load, a PUE of 1.3 and Utah’s cost of $.07 per kilowatt of electricity delivered (a nice rate while it lasts), it will cost $40 million per year simply to pay the electric bill. 

But guess what? The reason the electricity is so cheap is because 98 percent of Utah’s electricity is produced by coal and natural gas. That’s not very carbon friendly and with pending cap and trade legislation Utah’s electricity costs will most definitely increase.  How much? Who knows?

But whatever it is, the taxpayer (that’s you) will be paying for it.

As always, I welcome feedback, questions and comments.  You may reach me at  

Michael Bullock is the founder and CEO of Transitional Data Services (TDS), a Boston, MA-based consulting firm focusing on green data centers, data center consolidation / relocation, enterprise applications and technical operations.  Prior to founding TDS, Bullock held executive leadership positions at Student Advantage, CMGI and Renaissance Worldwide.