Facebook opens up data centre details

The same rule, by and large, has applied to the architecture of cloud computing—the massive, energy-hungry data centres and servers that power services like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, which companies treat as proprietary secrets.

But Facebook is opening the design of its custom-built servers and soon-to-be new data centre in Oregon to others in the industry.

“It is time to stop treating data centres like fight club,” Jonathan Heiliger, Facebook’s vice-president of technical operations, said at a news conference on Thursday at the social networking site’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

Heiliger said with a team of three engineers, Facebook had designed stripped-down servers that were 38 per cent more efficient and 24 per cent cheaper than those sold by major server makers. He also said Facebook’s new data centre, which is  in Prineville, Ore, is being cooled entirely with air, helping to reduce both its energy bills and carbon footprint. The data centre is expected to open this month.

While Facebook is earning praise from technology industry partners, who say its openness about its designs will help everyone become more efficient, the company is being criticised by some environmentalists for choosing Prineville as the location for its new data centre, because the majority of the electricity is generated by coal. Facebook is also building a data centre in North Carolina, where the local utility relies heavily on coal and nuclear power.

“If Facebook wants to be a truly green company, it needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions,” Casey Harrell, climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said in a statement. “The way to do that is decouple its growth from its emissions footprint by using clean, renewable energy to power its business instead of dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power.” In building its own servers and data centres, Facebook is following in the footsteps of Google, which designed much of the infrastructure that powers its services.

While Google has remained fairly tight-lipped about its innovations, Facebook said it was starting what it calls the Open Compute Project, making its design available to anyone in the industry.

“We are not the only ones who need the kind of hardware that we are building out,” said Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook. Zuckerberg said by sharing the company’s designs, Facebook would benefit because as more companies adopt those designs, the cost of the custom servers would decline.

Heiliger also said by getting rid of air-conditioning systems that cool most data centres, the Prineville one had drastically reduced an important measure of efficiency, known as power usage effectiveness (PUE).

While the average data centre has a P U E of 1.5, the Prineville facility has a P U E of 1.07. Google, Microsoft and other large data centre operators have also claimed P U E ratios that are significantly lower than industry averages.

One place where fight club rules still apply is on the topic of energy consumption. Neither Facebook nor other major Internet companies have been willing to talk about the increasingly large amount of electricity that they consume or how many servers they have.

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