Go west, young DHS and build a data center

The Homeland Security Department plans to select a vendor this summer to build a second cross-agency data center, and has directed prospective contractors to propose locations in the Western United States to help shield the facility from any major East Coast electricity blackout.

According to department procurement documents and industry sources, the department is in a downselection phase to pick the contractor for the planned data center. The department likely will announce a task order award for the second data center this summer, according to Input of Reston, Va.

DHS is managing the acquisition under the Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge solutions umbrella contracts. The department kicked off the acquisition last July with a request for information from vendors about the project.

DHS already has one cross-agency data center, operated at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in cooperation with the Naval Oceanographic Office.

The second data center will use 'active-active' or mirroring technology to continuously synchronize with the Stennis center. That technology would allow the second center to take over from the Mississippi facility immediately in the event of a complete power failure or other disaster.

The Stennis data center draws its power from utilities in the power pool run by SERC Reliability Corp., formerly known as the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council. SERC includes power generators, transmission providers and related entities in the Southeast that in turn link to the Eastern Interconnect, a group of eight regional reliability areas or power pools that exchange electricity for economic, pollution control and reliability purposes.

In response to brownouts and regional electricity failures in the past, as well as concerns about shortages of power transmission and generation capacity, Congress and the National Electrical Reliability Council (NERC) have progressively worked to minimize the risks of wide-scale blackouts. NERC builds standards and helps define the power pool regions.

But some regional power failures in the past demonstrated that an equipment failure at even a single critical point in the electricity network can cascade in fashion that cuts off service across areas where tens of millions of people live. Brownouts caused by circumstances such as unusually hot summer weather or even, as in the case of the Enron Corp. electricity market machinations of antisocial electric power market participants, can also degrade service to a degree that menaces data centers.

Accordingly, DHS seeks to protect its planned new data center from the possibility that a power failure could affect all of the Eastern Interconnect by choosing a site for its second data center in either of the two remaining interconnects:
  • ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or the Texas Interconnect
  • WSSC the Western Systems Coordinating Council or the Western Interconnect

Both of the other interconnects are much more independent of each other and the Eastern Interconnect, a factor that helps suppress the possibility of a nationwide power failure.

Major data centers and other critical IT installations typically have independent power sources ranging from batteries that can switch over within fractions of a second and last for hours to diesel-electric generators that can function for days and weeks on end.

But even the largest diesel-electric generators, such as those installed at nuclear power plants that are designed to kick in when a 'station blackout' threatens to shut off all normal sources of electricity, don't run indefinitely.

For example, the landline telephone network built by the Bell System before the telecommunications networks were broken up and deregulated late in the last century includes dozens of large diesel-electric installations that can continue to provide electricity even in the event of a regional power failure.

But those diesel units aren't as reliable as a power pool that can import or export power, within limits, and allocate or 'dispatch' generating plants in response to load fluctuations or equipment failures. The operating duration of the diesel electric generators used in the phone network has been a relatively confidential feature of the national continuity of operations plan for decades.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission records show many examples of problems with the diesel electric generators installed at all domestic nuclear power plants, according to specialists in the field. Those generators require scheduled testing and maintenance, according to NRC regulations.

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