SSA's new data center vulnerable to hurricanes and tornadoes, consultant says
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Jun 01, 2011
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
“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
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
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.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.