SSA data center approaching 'catastrophic failure'

Problems could shut down agency operations for days at a time; new center is still years away

A new data center planned for the Social Security Administration is more than a year behind schedule, and the agency’s current building is bordering on “catastrophic failure,” government officials told two congressional subcommittees, reports NextGov.

The SSA’s National Computer Center has a host of problems, including tangled telecommunications and electrical cables underneath the data center floor, an outdated HVAC system, clogged pipes and an antiquated uninterruptible power system, and is near collapse, according to the testimony. 

The 1970s infrastructure is the root of the problems, which threaten to shut down the vital agency at any moment for days, Kelly Croft, SSA deputy commissioner for systems, told a joint oversight committee hearing entitled “Managing Costs and Mitigating Delays in the Building of the Social Security’s New National Computer Center” on Feb. 11.


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“However, even one day of potential IT service outage would cause a major disruption to our customers and cost approximately $25 million in lost agency productivity,” said Croft in a statement.

Now scheduled to be completed in August 2016, the new center is planned to handle and store about 500,000 electronic records that determine the citizen benefits.

Meanwhile, officials worry that the current data center, the 30-year-old NCC in Baltimore, is riddled with too many problems and may not last another five years. The SSA nationwide computer operation is run from the NCC and a Secondary Support Center in Durham, N.C. These computer operations allow the SSA to pay benefits of more than $700 billion to about 56 million Americans and store data on most U.S. workers. Currently, the SSA processes more than 75 million business transactions per day.

In 2008, a Lockheed Martin study said the NCC is an aging facility with “significant” electrical and mechanical challenges including several points of failure – “where the entire NCC would shut down should any of these points fail.” At that time, the study indicated that NCC would only continue operating “safely and uninterrupted” for an additional three to five years, with construction deadline being 2013, said the hearing’s briefing memorandum.

To ensure the NCC remains operational until the current project is completed, improvements are being made to the current building. A General Services Adminstration Building Engineering Report as well as a feasibility study is being conducted. For some, that only represents a bandage approach.

“Relying on short-term fixes to serious problems at an old data center is just too much of a risk for our nation,” said Chairman Jeff Denham (R.-Calif.) of the Economic Development, Public Building and Emergency Management Subcommittee, in a statement.

“That is why it is particularly troubling that the timeline for completion of the new data center has already slipped by a year,” Denham added.

Delays occurred when members of Congress, GSA and SSA could not agree on where’s to build the $500 million structure. Last week, GSA chose a site in Frederick County, Md.

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 16, 2011 Metro DC Area

One additional thing that I remember. When we designed the building it had the ability to sustain the addition of two additional floors of expansion. While it was not cost effective to add the two floors at the time, it may be very cost effective now, i.e., acquiring new location, total new construction costs, etc.

Wed, Feb 16, 2011 Metro DC Area

Having been involved in the design and construction of the current NCC in Woodlawn, MD I find the description of the problems as depicted in this article to be totally out of this world. The description reads like something out of the LM report where they are attempting to justify building a new data center and are echoing what the agency has told them to say. The building is modular and each sector of the building can be upgraded without requiring a new structure.It is also possible to move the people out of the other floors so that they can recapture the environmental space and put the people in a new structure. It is cheaper to build people space than it is computer space.In these days when budgets are being stretched they had better be looking at reclaiming and remodeling rather than spending. The current facility was built at around $60M dollars at 1970 dollar value. Maybe if SSA will not listen to the IGs recommendation it is time to bring in the Congressional inquiries.

Wed, Feb 16, 2011

Google invested $600 million in a new data center in Berkeley County, SC and the project was completed on time. GSA should get lessons learned from successful "green" data centers such as this one. Construction has now Ramped Up on Second Data Center at this site as announced on Nov. 23, 2010 due to Google's rapid growth. Work on the facility should begin in the 1st half of 2011.

This is a part of our original data center construction plan. Google completed its first data center and constructed the shell for the second data center building in 2008. Build out and limited testing of the second building should begin in the first half of 2011 and the center should be fully operational by the end of 2011.

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