Why the NSA put a data center in Utah
Bluffdale • The rest of the country may think Bluffdale is the middle of nowhere, but the National Security Agency considered this 8,000-person town a source of prime real estate.
Bluffdale beat 38 contenders to become the site for a massive new data center when the spy agency input key criteria into a mathematical model, Harvey Davis, NSA director of installations and logistics, said in an interview.
Utah's low utility rates were a key factor, Davis said.
"We looked at available water. We looked at other industrial folks in the area and Utah clearly scored on the top of the list," he said. "That's how we picked Utah."
Open land on a military installation, a qualified workforce and no history of natural disasters also helped Bluffdale become home to the NSA's $1.2 billion Utah Data Center.
Politics, too, played a role. Interviews with past and present Utah officials reveal the lobbying and diplomacy that led to Bluffdale's selection.
Discussions with Utah started in 2005.
The NSA "came to us about the possibility of entertaining the thought," then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said in an interview. "There were several states ... in the mix at that point. I thought, OK, we're focused on economic development. We'd brought in Proctor and Gamble, other businesses and [technology] is one of the core competencies of the state."
Huntsman made three trips to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., in support of the data center.
That trip and other lobbying helped reveal Bluffdale's geographical and infrastructure advantages.
The fact that the land annexed in 2011 by Bluffdale belonged to the Utah National Guard's Camp Williams was a big deal, Bluffdale City Manager Mark Reid said. The presence of a military post would increase security.
In addition, Reid said that because Bluffdale sits at the gap between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains, multiple transmission and distribution power lines pass by it. Data centers can tap into those lines and have redundant electrical supplies.
They also can benefit from low utility rates, a characteristic of Utah that has drawn other data centers to the state and neighboring states.
The Utah Data Center is expected to require 65 megawatts of electricity for its operations at any moment in time at a cost of $40 million a year.
Either of two nearby water districts could provide the data center with what Bluffdale later estimated would need to be 1,210 gallons of water per minute to keep computers cool. Utah's cold winters and year-round low humidity also help keep computers cool, Reid said.
Bluffdale is also a pretty safe place to be in terms of disasters. Yes, Bluffdale sits on the Wasatch Fault, so an earthquake could strike. But the data center is in an area that isn't susceptible to wildfires like locations a few miles to the west where the Oquirrh Mountains begin. Utah doesn't experience tornadoes, hurricanes or tsunamis like the Midwest or the coasts.
In 2009, then-Col. Scot Olson of the Utah National Guard said NSA officials seemed drawn to Utah's increasing reputation as a high-tech industry center in addition to its more traditional reputation as a transportation hub.
"They were looking at secure sites, where there could be a natural nexus between organizations," Olson said. "The stars just kind of came into alignment. We could provide them everything they need."
Reid said the NSA also considered labor advantages. There are three university computer science and engineering programs nearby. The Wasatch Front has technology firms such as Oracle, Adobe and IM Flash and online retailers such as eBay, Overstock.com and Backcountry.com.
Bluffdale's assets had to be sold to the NSA and Congress.
Sen. Orrin Hatch was in the midst of a 14-year run on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Huntsman gave Hatch credit for helping beat the competitors.
Hatch called the data center "something I worked very hard on."
But Hatch gave "the citizens of Utah" credit for the Utah Data Center "because it wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the good people that we have out in Utah," he said.
Of the potential sites, Hatch said, six or seven became finalists. Hatch didn't know who the other finalists were.
After the NSA selected Utah, Davis said he had to tell other congressmen why their states lost while also persuading them to finance the data center anyway.
Both Hatch and former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in interviews lauded Utah as having citizens who would be politically more supportive of a data center than some states.
"Utah's population is not Berkeley or Cambridge," Bennett said. "You wouldn't be hiring folks who would be picketed by their neighbors or any of the other kind of problems you might run into somewhere else."
There is no indication, however, Utah's conservative politics played a role in the data center coming here.
Bill Binney, who worked for the NSA for more than 30 years until 2001, told The Tribune the NSA was probably more concerned with putting the data center on a military installation with a good power supply than the population's political leanings or the notion Mormons don't question authority.
"It's all practical things" the NSA considered, Binney said.
Davis didn't mention Utah's politics in his interview with The Tribune.
Even after Congress appropriated the money for the center, Utah has tried to remain accommodating to the NSA. The University of Utah, at the request of the NSA, has started a program teaching students how to manage public- and private-sector data centers.
When it was revealed the Utah Legislature passed a bill that could impose a tax on electricity sold to the data center, state officials met with the NSA and agreed to pursue a compromise. The deal is expected to be revealed in September.
Reid, who has already been to a data-center conference, said the technology firms now know where Bluffdale is.
"The Utah Data Center put Bluffdale on the map," he said.
Reporters Thomas Burr and Matt Canham contributed to this story.
The National Security Agency in Utah
This is the second part of a three-part series about the NSA in Utah.
Coming Sunday • Newly leaked documents, prior revelations, building specifics, information from defense contractors and hints dropped by NSA's top brass paint a clearer picture of just what may go on at the Utah Data Center.
At sltrib.com • History repeats itself in the current outcry over NSA's reach.
Join us for a Trib Talk discussion
Tuesday at 11:30 a.m., Trib Talk's Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate a live video chat at sltrib.com about the NSA's Utah Data Center with reporter Tony Semerad, the Brookings Institution's Alan Friedman and University of Utah computer security expert Matt Might. You can join the discussion using a TribTalk hashtag on Twitter or Google+.
Tune in to C-SPAN
The Tribune's Thomas Burr will talk about the NSA's Utah Data Center Tuesday at 7:15 a.m. on C-SPAN.