A Western power

DHS wants its data center's electricity insulated from East Coast grid

A correction on SERC Reliability's role will be published in the May 28 print issue of GCN. Otherwise, GCN stands behind the reporting on this story.

Kiyoshi Takahase Segundo

What if you built a massive data center for a federal department and no electric power came?

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 as a means of shielding the facility in case of a major East Coast electricity blackout.

According to department procurement documents and industry sources, the department is in a down-selection 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, said market research firm Input.

DHS is managing the acquisition under the Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge umbrella contracts. The department kicked off the acquisition in July 2006 with a request for information from vendors.

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.

One key advantage of building two data centers is that putting all the systems for the department's directorates and agencies in two locations that march in lock step will slash the amount of data zipping around DHS' wide-area networks, department officials say.

In addition, upgrades to the various systems will be greatly simplified by managing the process in what amounts to two central locations, the technologists add.

Consolidating the department's data centers will allow DHS to conserve its expenditure on computing cycles by eliminating excess processing and network capacity now spread across several locations, homeland security technology specialists say.

The Stennis data center draws its power from utilities in the power pool run by SERC Reliability, formerly known as the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council. SERC includes power generators, transmission providers and related entities in the Southeast that 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 ' in addition to concerns about shortages of power transmission and generation capacity ' Congress and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. have 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 to affect 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 Enron ' electricity market manipulations, can also degrade service to a degree that menaces data centers.

DHS wants to protect its planned new data center from the possibility of a cascading power failure that could bring down the entire Eastern Interconnect by choosing a site in the West for its second data center.

That would put the new data center in either of the two remaining interconnects: the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (the Texas Interconnect) or the Western Systems Coordinating Council (the Western Interconnect).

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

The Texas Interconnect, in particular, has only a limited capacity to exchange power with the other interconnects, a feature that insulates it from a nationwide cascading outage.

Independent power

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.

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 endurance 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.

Who pours the juice

The electric reliability regions, which fall under the wing of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., are usually referred to by their acronyms.

ECAR: East Central Area Reliability Coordinating Agreement.

ERCOT: Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

FRCC: Florida Reliability Coordinating Council.

MAAC: Mid-Atlantic Area Council.

MAIN: Mid-America Interconnected Network.

MAPP: Mid-Continent Area Power Pool (extends into Canada).

NPCC: Northeast Power Coordination Council (extends into Canada).

SERC: Southeastern Electric Reliability Council, also called SERC Reliability.

SPP: Southwest Power Pool.

The Western Interconnect has subregions that have been hidden for clarity.

' Wilson P. Dizard III


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