Facebook shares design of energy-efficient data center

Apr 7 2011 - 4:14pm

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Having designed and built a new energy-efficient data center in Oregon, Facebook is sharing the technology for the center and its customized servers with other Internet companies, hoping to cut the huge amounts of electricity consumed by the industry.

Facebook's new data center in Prineville, Ore., is 38 percent more energy-efficient than industry standards, resulting in a 24 percent savings in cost, the company said at a media event at its Palo Alto headquarters Thursday. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company executives and engineers said the social network is sharing the more efficient server technology and data center designs with anyone who is interested in using it, an effort Facebook is calling the Open Compute Project.

"We're really proud of our achievement today," said Amir Michael, manager of hardware design for Facebook. "We did all this work, and I feel we didn't just do it for ourselves; we're opening it up for the community at large."

Among the groups that said they were interested in adopting Facebook's technology were the federal government through the U.S. Department of Energy, and social-game maker Zynga. Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Intel worked with Facebook to develop the technology.

Data centers are a large and fast-growing source of electrical consumption in the United States, consuming about 1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption at a cost of $4.5 billion annually, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last year. That amount that is expected to almost double over the next five years.

One innovation in Facebook's new data center: It relies exclusively on outside air to cool the rows of servers that generate large amounts of heat. "There is no air conditioning equipment in the data center," said Jay Park, director of data center design for Facebook. While Oregon's cool weather will help with that, Facebook plans to use the same ambient-air technology with a data center it is building in North Carolina.

The servers are also specially designed for more efficient cooling. They are taller than traditional servers to allow more room for heat sinks, with much more energy-efficient fans developed in conjunction with partners like Intel.

Yet, despite Facebook's pride at its achievement, it drew criticism Thursday from the environmental group Greenpeace. While praising Facebook for its more efficient designs, Greenpeace said that meant little if the company continued to rely on coal and nuclear power for the electricity that powers the Oregon data center.

"If Facebook wants to be a truly green company, it needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions," Greenpeace climate campaigner Casey Harrell said in a written statement.

Facebook sent a letter to Greenpeace Thursday asking the organization to support the Open Compute Project, and said Greenpeace should focus on getting the entire industry to become more efficient.

Rather than focusing on the source of the power, "from the beginning, we realized that the biggest impact we could have is focusing on efficiency, both for our own operations and the world. The Open Compute Project has the potential to save many times the energy that Facebook will ever use," said Barry Schnitt, director of policy communications for Facebook.

Data centers are the engine that support "the cloud" -- the vast distributed computing networks that power everything from Google's search, voice recognition and translations services to Amazon's retail empire. The explosive growth of social media and networking means that companies like Facebook and Zynga are rapidly building their own "cloud" infrastructure around the United States and the world.

The design and location of data centers are often closely guarded company secrets, however, and in addition to the new technology, a key significance of the Open Compute Project is that it is being shared with everybody.

"It's the biggest cost reduction in running server infrastructure in a decade," said Graham Weston, founder and chairman of Rackspace, a prominent cloud computing company.

Jason Waxman, an Intel general manager in its data center group who worked on the project with Facebook, compared its significance to the launch of the Toyota Prius -- if Toyota had also shared the hybrid's plans with the rest of the world.

"Some of the biggest impact is going to be in emerging companies where they are just starting to decide how to build their data centers," Waxman said. "Now they have a blueprint."

(c) 2011, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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