Why Facebook's New-Gen Data Center Leads by Example

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2012-08-19 Print this article Print

NEWS ANALYSIS: The world's largest social network hopes to "inspire the industry to be a little more open, a little more innovative and a little more focused on energy efficiency" through the example of its first wholly owned data center.

PRINEVILLE, Ore. -- In the midst of the wide open spaces of farm and grazing land surrounding this central Oregon town of 9,253 has been born a new type of farm: one that produces Web services that interconnect people. And like horses, cows and sheep on the grasslands, this one also requires water, fresh air and plenty of space.

The new farm, of course, is mechanical and needs electricity -- lots of electricity. That's why Facebook, the world's largest social network with close to 1 billion registered users, decided about four years ago to build its first wholly owned data center in Prineville, about 140 miles east of Portland. The Columbia River is about 80 miles away, providing all the hydroelectric power a huge facility like this needs to stay up and running at all times.

As this 334,000-square-foot data center comes online and starts processing more and more of the workload from Facebook's huge customer base, it becomes an integral part of Facebook's central computing strategy: To run a single, humongous, infinitely pliable computer system that expands and contracts as necessary to handle all its traffic efficiently.

There is a score of reasons -- more than 75 the company has listed publicly -- as to why Prineville was chosen, but suffice to say that the most important reasons are the ones listed above: land, power, water and fresh air. Certainly those are the most important environmental factors in the location of any data center.

Old-Fashioned Prineville Now on Cutting Edge

Prineville, founded in the 1870s, may be a bit on the backward side (it got its first Starbucks in 2006), but it is now on the cutting edge of the data center business. Facebook is not only building two huge data centers here -- each one of which could hold three of Wal-mart's super stores -- but Apple is also planning on locating its own IT center in the region.

Facebook, which is closing in on 1 billion registered users and is pounded by billions of transactions each minute, realized early on that it was going to need to own its data centers. The growth of the company could simply not continue by using rented server space.

The Prineville facility opened in April 2011 following a two-and-a-half-year construction period. It is custom-built for Facebook's purposes and uses the company's Open Compute Project architecture.

Facebook launched the OCP on April 7, 2011. It is an unprecedented attempt to open-source the specifications it employs for its hardware and data center to efficiently power a social network comprising 900 million-plus people. The OCP held its second summit event in May 2012 in San Antonio. More than 500 attendees came.

Facebook Publishes Specs for All to Use

As part of the project, Facebook has published specs and mechanical designs used to construct the motherboards, power supplies, server chassis, and server and battery cabinets for its data center. That's unprecedented enough for a company of Facebook's growing scale, but the social network is also open-sourcing specs for its data center's electrical and mechanical construction.

The move is surprising because Facebook closely secures the information inside its network walled garden. It has had to endure its share of flack from users about how it handles personal information, which the company relies upon to earn income.

Nonetheless, Facebook isn't fearful of showing the world exactly how its system is set up. Could this lead to future security problems? There's no way to tell at this point, but Facebook appears confident in its ability to separate IT structure from its data stores of personal and business information.

Who would have thought the company would open source the technological blueprint for how it delivers and supports all that data in the cloud? Indeed, Facebook's take is completely divergent from strategies of other Internet companies. Google, Twitter and Amazon closely guard their data center and hardware specifications to maintain a competitive edge in the cutthroat cloud-computing market. Why is Facebook giving away its specs to other companies?

Open Compute Project Off to Good Start

"It's amazing how much can happen in a year," Frank Frankovsky, Facebook engineer and founding board member of OCP, told eWEEK. "In April 2011, when we open-sourced a set of server and data center designs under the name 'Open Compute Project,' we weren't sure what to expect. It was our hope that we could inspire the industry to be a little more open, a little more innovative and a little more focused on energy efficiency.

"It seems to have worked, although there's still a lot more to do."

Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on Salesforce.com and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and DevX.com and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz

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