Thursday, June 20, 2013

About That NSA Data Center in Utah

Yeah, we've all read about that.  The Blaze did a special one hour show featuring it.  It's everywhere:
So how much data can the site store?  Five zettabytes.  How much data is that?  That link uses the analogy that it's 312 billion iPhones.  But iPhones come in a few sizes.  Nice analogy, but I like crisper numbers.

A zetta- anything is 10^21 of them - it's an SI Prefix.  It's always impressive to write those out, so 5x10^21 is 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, which is even less helpful.  At 50 GB in a Blu-ray Disc (BD), which is 9 hours of HD video, 5 zettabytes is 100 billion BDs.  Wait... 900 billion hours of  HD video?  That's over 102 million years of 24/7/365 video they can store.  Srsly, NSA, you think you have enough?  How many copies of Grumpy Cat and pr0n do you want?  (Prediction: soon after the data center is online, we nuke Nigeria after discovering 80% of traffic analysis leads to a banker who wants to share some unclaimed money with us).

Wonder how big it has to be?  Since a terabyte is 10^12 bytes, and enough 1 terabyte drives are out there that everyone has seen one, it might help to think that a billion terabyte drives is one zettabyte.  Poking around Amazon, I see a mid-range 1.0 Terabyte drive for $70.  You'd need five billion of those to equal the storage in Utah.  It measures 4.8 x 3.2 x 0.6 inches, or 9.216 cubic inches.  Five billion of those is 46.08 billion cubic inches.  According to the handy online conversion calculator,  that's 26.67 million cubic feet, or 988,000 cubic yards.  Even if you just stacked 1 Terabyte drives 6 feet high, like standard equipment racks, making a layer 6 feet deep, 26.67 million cubic feet would  cover 4,445,000 square feet.  Which sounds big, but it's not extremely big for commercial building standards: a square only 2108 feet on a side.  Of course, when you're dealing with that much electronics, you'll need to run power to them, data buses, cooling, support computers, lots of spares and lots of infrastructure.   A lot of room.  Easily twice that 2108'.  Maybe three buildings a half mile long on each side.  Or one building that's three stories tall.

A good set of pictures is here at Business Insider.  Before I get any responses about being a shill for the NSA, to best of my knowledge, I've never worked on anything that ended up there, nor have I ever worked for the NSA.  Except for being a taxpayer.  In that sense I've worked for the NSA; all of us stupid taxpayers have. 


  1. How do they sort through, collate, and use that data? I'm guessing they'll probably store it all to be used against you if you come to their attention. National Security, and all that.

  2. That's the question, isn't it?

    As I understand it, they're using the data now and everyday for their traffic analysis. The kind of use you're talking about is always possible, of course, and searching through that amount of data requires some kick ass computers just to not choke to death.