SSA's new data center vulnerable to hurricanes and tornadoes, consultant says

The Social Security Administration risks total destruction of its new $800 million data center by a tornado or strong hurricane because the structure doesn't have enough protection against strong winds, said a consultant who reviewed the project for SSA’s Office of the Inspector General.

The data center, to be built near Baltimore, is being designed to withstand wind speeds of 90 miles per hour. But Fortress International Group, a consulting firm that examined the building code specifications for SSA's IG, recommended that the agency fortify the data center against wind speeds of at least 120 miles per hour. That recommendation was rejected.

The stronger standard is recommended for critical data protection from tornadoes and hurricanes, said Eric Maxfield, vice president of Fortress, in an interview June 1. Fortress specializes in data center consulting.

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Maxfield, who has advised several major corporations on their data centers, said the building specifications for wind speeds of 120 miles per hour to 180 miles per hour are frequently applied to corporate data centers.

“Specifying wind speeds of 120 miles per hour or higher is common for critical facilities,” Maxfield said.

SSA has been planning to replace its 30-year-old National Computer Center for several years and has been moving forward on designing a new center. The agency allocated $500 million in economic stimulus law funds for the project in 2009. The total cost of the new data center and its software is estimated at around $800 million. Most of the data to be housed at the center is considered mission-critical and sensitive because it includes personal information about hundreds of millions of Americans.

SSA rejected the recommendation for stronger wind-speed protection because the 90-mile-per-hour specification meets global standards, according to a May 13 report from SSA's IG.

“SSA did not agree with Recommendation 1, stating that current specification for wind speed of 90 miles per hour meets International Building Code standards, and it is unnecessary to exceed these standards any further,” the IG's report states.

However, Maxfield said international building standards aren't sufficient for government buildings that house critical data. “We said, 'This is a data center, and you have to go above and beyond the International Building Code,'” he said. “The International Building Code does not treat government assets any differently than an office building.”

He said it was odd that SSA officials did not consider the hurricane and tornado threat as strongly as they appeared to consider the threat of flooding. Under government standards, federal data centers cannot be built near certain types of floodplains, while the International Building Code does not have that requirement, he added.

Tornadoes have wind speeds of 40 miles per hour to more than 200 miles per hour. Hurricanes have winds that exceed 74 miles per hour.

The Maryland region has experienced F1 tornadoes, with wind speeds of as much as 112 miles per hour, and F2 tornadoes, with wind speeds of as much as 157 miles per hour, Maxfield said.

If a tornado or hurricane with winds exceeding 90 miles per hour should strike SSA's data center, the damage to the building could be catastrophic, he added.

“It fails," he said. "The roof comes off, rain comes in, and everything is destroyed.”

SSA has a backup data center, so presumably the damage would not be as great, he added. However, because it is critical government data, Fortress recommended the higher standard.

Fortifying SSA's data center to meet the higher wind-speed standard would require more concrete, stronger building supports and less glass to make it a hardened shell, Maxfield said. The cost would be higher, but not substantially so, he added, but he declined to be specific on how much more the higher wind speed protection would cost.

SSA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The IG's office contracted with Strategic e-Business Solutions for the evaluation, and Fortress was the subcontractor.

SSA's IG wrote that Strategic e-Business “found that in general, the [General Services Administration]/SSA team had developed a comprehensive list of requirements. The team was thorough in creating a document that effectively communicated the needs of the new data center and did an impressive job of conveying the expected performance requirements.”

Strategic e-Business recommended that SSA provide further details about the methods for validating the minimum requirement for air handlers in the data center spaces. SSA officials agreed with that advice.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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