Blueprints of the NSA’s Secretive Utah Data Center Revealed

Few details about the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) massive data center nearing completion in Bluffdale, Utah, are known, which probably increases the public’s fascination with the complex likely to house some of their communications data that was revealed to be secretly collected by the agency last month.

Among the latest information to come out about the more than $1 billion data center are some blueprints obtained by Forbes, although the outlet doesn’t specify how it came by them. The documents show an emergency exit plan map and three levels of one of the center’s data halls.

nsa data center blueprint
Bluffdale Data Center emergency plan map. (Image via Forbes)
nsa data center blueprint
One level of a data hall. (Image via Forbes)

Although it has been speculated by some that the data center could hold an incomprehensible number of zettabytes or yottabytes of information, Kashmir Hill for Forbes reported that the blueprints might tell a different story:

Brewster Kahle is the engineering genius behind the Internet Archive, which is kind of like the NSA for the public Web. The NSA data center will accumulate private interactions and information and make them searchable; the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine does the same thing for the open Web for historical purposes. Kahle estimates that a space of that size could hold 10,000 racks of servers (assuming each rack takes up 10 square feet). “One of these racks cost about $100,000,” says Kahle. “So we are talking $1 billion in machines.”

Kahle estimates each rack would be capable of storing 1.2 petabytes of data. Kahle says that voice recordings of all the phone calls made in the U.S. in a year would take up about 272 petabytes, or just over 200 of those 10,000 racks.

If Kahle’s estimations and assumptions are correct, the facility could hold up to 12,000 petabytes, or 12 exabytes – which is a lot of information(!) – but is not of the scale previously reported. Previous estimates would allow the data center to easily hold hypothetical 24-hour video and audio recordings of every person in the United States for a full year. The data center’s capacity as calculated by Kahle would only allow the NSA to create Beyonce-style archives for the 13 million people living in the Los Angeles metro area.

But according to Moore’s Law, the ability to store more information will only exponentially increase with time. “I always build everything expandable,’’ NSA Director of Installations and Logistics Harvey Davis told the Salt Lake Tribunelast month. “We’re getting the biggest bang for our buck right there,” Davis added, referencing the lower cost of resources to keep the data center running in Utah.

nsa data center utah
An aerial view of the NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, Thursday, June 6, 2013. The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency’s need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach. (Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer)

To power the data center, it has been estimated that it would take 65 megawatts of continuous electricity and up to 1.7 million gallons of water per day to keep the servers cool. Davis had told NPR previously that maintenance would cost about $20 million per year, but Kahle to Forbes put the number at more like $70 million (his estimate was for 75 megawatts of continuous electricity).

It has not been formally disclosed how exactly the NSA will use the data center expected to be completed this fall, but many assume among the information to be stored there will be communications data. The classified programs  revealing this secret data collection for anti-terrorism efforts was leaked last month by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

On Wednesday this week the House failed to pass a measure that would have defunded the NSA’s program collecting American’s communications data.

Kahle expressed concern that advancing technology and some of the NSA’s programs will lead to a total-surveillance society.

“If there’s the will and the opportunity, there is the technical ability and the cost is low,” he told Forbes. “You don’t need dossiers of people if you just collect all of the data and can collate it at any time.”

Take a look at Forbes’ full article for more images of the blueprints it obtained.

This story has been updated to correct the number of gallons speculated to be used by the Utah Data Center from 17 million gallons to 1.7 million gallons.