After more than a decade of work and an investment of 1.6 billion shekels ($460 million), a modern data center serving the Israel Defense Forces recently began operating in the Negev.
Servers hosting several of the army’s most critical systems are now operating deep underground, and every day, additional systems are added to it. In the infrastructure world, this is dubbed the “five nines” project because it’s required to be operational 99.999 percent of the time, meaning it can be down for less than an hour a year.
“We became operational on June 7,” said Lt. Col. O., who is responsible for establishing the facility, in his first media interview. “About two weeks ago, the president was here for the inauguration ceremony, and its name was changed. The facility is now called Metzudat David, because it fits in with David Ben-Gurion’s national vision of making the Negev bloom, and with the plan under which the IDF is moving south.”
O. commands a technological intelligence unit that was reestablished to work on the Metzudat David project after having been closed down in the 1990s. Back then, too, it was responsible for installing communications systems.
“In 2006, the then-head of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, launched the ‘five nines’ project,” O. said. “The idea then was that if the IDF moved down to the Negev, it was necessary to deal with the infrastructure issue and move MI’s computer facilities south.
“The idea was to create a stable, protected facility in the Negev that was bigger than what the IDF had, and with levels of protection and operational continuity that were a new level for the IDF. All the life support systems are inside, so the site can function for about a week, including the people inside it, with no dependence on the outside, without water or the electric company’s support,” he added.
What is the facility’s purpose, and which systems have been or will be transferred to it? That information is classified, but O. said that not every IDF server will be housed in the new facility.
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“In line with the army’s cloud strategy, only the most modern operational systems, which contribute directly to the IDF’s combat, will enter Metzudat David. So that’s firing systems, intelligence, command and control, but not combat support systems.
“There’s a battle over every server rack here,” O. added. “We use fine filters with regard to the digital and military relevance of every system that comes in.”
Air force and navy, too
In the beginning, back in 2006, the idea was to have a facility that would only serve the intelligence corps. Later, it was expanded to include all the ground forces. But over the years, the goal changed again and the venture was redefined as being for the entire IDF. Consequently, this facility will also serve the air force and the navy, which is very unusual in the IDF.
“In the end, the decision was to build a protected General Staff facility in the Negev that would meet the army’s needs for the next 50 years and also bring about a digital transformation of the entire army,” O. said. “This is an unusual place where all the different branches of the army meet.”
Altogether, he said, Metzudat David will house 300 IDF systems.
The building contains several underground floors, one of which houses the servers. The floor below that is for the electricity and cooling systems, and the bottom floor houses the UPS systems, which are supposed to ensure continuous operation during a transition from external power supply to internal generators. The facility is protected against both missiles and electromagnetic disturbances.
Data centers are typically measured by two parameters. One is square meterage – that is, the facility’s size. The other is how much electricity it consumes. According to O., Metzudat David is 20,000 square meters (gross) and consumes 3.6 megawatts of power, “which is more than the nearby city.”
The site currently contains 100 server racks, and there are plans to install more over the next year and a half. As is the norm for data centers, Metzudat David’s electricity is supplied by two different substations, to provide redundancy. But in the future, it will get electricity from an independent power plant that will run on natural gas and provide five megawatts of power. This plant is slated to start operating in March 2022.
Despite the money spent, the IDF is still stuck in the center of the country
The idea for the project arose in 2006, and in September 2010, a cornerstone-laying ceremony was held under the auspices of then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. That is also when the army initially opened bidding on the project.
Two years later, it solicited bids for the principal construction work, which was expected to cost an estimated 300 million shekels. The winners were a group of contractors led by Shikun & Binui.
In 2017, a third contract was signed with the project’s main teleprocessing contractor – the one responsible for supply its electronic systems. Israel Aerospace Industries was chosen as the principal contractor, working together with TSG (a company jointly owned by IAI and Formula Systems) and a third company, Leidos.
On the day the contract was announced, IAI said in a statement that its estimated value was “hundreds of millions of shekels,” and that the project “is considered the biggest and most complex technology center in the IDF’s history. As part of it, the IDF’s computing infrastructure, which is currently located in dozens of different places, will be relocated to advanced computing centers.”
This contract, incidentally, included maintenance of the facility by IAI for years to come. And in July, IAI won an even bigger contract, to build a teleprocessing system for MI’s new complex in the south, a project that will take six years.
One criticism of the project is its cost. By comparison, the SDS facility in Modi’in, a civilian facility whose construction is currently nearing completion, cost an estimated 700 million shekels, even though it’s bigger than the IDF facility, at 35,000 square meters, and equally well protected. A second criticism is how long the project has taken.
“As more people are involved in a project, the demands grow exponentially,” said Nir Baron, a consultant on strategic facilities for Elements, a homeland security consulting firm. “And the dynamic in such cases is that every person tries to be more stringent than the next. And that’s what happened with the ‘five nines.’
“The modern approach is for much faster solutions that rely on quantity, redundancy and diversity rather than protection,” he added, referring to the view that instead of a single “fortress,” it’s possible to use multiple server farms that are each less well protected but provide backup for each other. “The price tag for Metzudat David was too high.”
O. said that “there were many changes in the project along the way, and each change in capabilities also has an effect on how long it takes. Was this worth the delay? If I bring all the IDF’s operational capabilities here, in my view, it was worth it.”
Another problem is that Metzudat David was supposed to support the larger project of relocating the IDF to the Negev and setting up the new intelligence base. But the IDF has been postponing the move south for years. The original target date of 2016 has been repeatedly postponed, and is currently in the middle of the next decade.
MI fears it will lose quality personnel because career army officers will be reluctant to relocate from the center of the country. If the move actually happens, they will simply leave the army for the civilian market.
“Look at how many civilians work here,” O. retorted. “We also know that some of them moved to live here in the area. I think this impressive facility is preparing the ground and will help with the move south. As the rabbinic sages said, ‘People’s hearts are drawn after their deeds.”