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Greening the "Cloud" at Facebook's Newest Data Center

By Paula Melton
December 27, 2011
Facebook's Prineville, Oregon data center keeps energy use low with LED lighting as well as fans and misters for evaporative cooling using outdoor air.
Photo courtesy Open Compute Project
Facebook's Prineville, Oregon data center keeps energy use low with LED lighting as well as fans and misters for evaporative cooling using outdoor air.

Energy entering the data center is broken into consumption areas such as server load and computing operations, cooling equipment, and power conversion and distribution.
Courtesy DOE Industrial Technologies Program
Energy entering the data center is broken into consumption areas such as server load and computing operations, cooling equipment, and power conversion and distribution.
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Many people try to shrink their environmental footprint by telecommuting, teleconferencing, and sending e-vites, e-cards, and emails. While arguably better than their conventional alternatives, these practices are not without environmental impacts—impacts most easily understood by looking at the massive power use of data centers. While we hear about these data centers being part of a “cloud” of Web-based services, they are in fact very solid, power-hungry hubs full of giant servers. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a typical data center consumes up to 100 times the energy of a typical office building.

Facebook, like other large Internet companies, is trying to change that by altering how data centers are designed. Its Prineville, Oregon center uses innovative technologies to save on both cooling and server loads—and Facebook is taking an extra step by sharing its design freely through an initiative called the Open Compute Project (most data center designs are closely guarded company secrets). Modeled on the concept of open-source software development, where code is released to the developer community for free use and potential improvement, the Open Compute Project has released the technical specs for the Prineville data center to engineers and other hardware specialists so they can use them as they wish and possibly make the design even better.

While the technology is unusual, it’s “not complex at all,” says Ken Patchett, site director at Prineville. He describes the center’s cooling mechanism—a misting system that uses outdoor air and evaporative cooling to regulate the temperature and humidity without cooling towers—as “a little cloud-making system.” In winter, when temperatures can dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius), the air can also be warmed by recovering heat as it comes off the servers. “If I didn’t have servers in here, we’d be cold,” Patchett says. “There’s no way to heat the data center without servers in it.”

The concept behind the center, Patchett explains, is that “the servers and the building need to be integrated with one another.” In a conventional data center, power comes off the grid and is run through a large uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which stores power for the whole facility to prevent data loss in case of a power failure. The UPS typically converts the AC power to DC for storage and then back to AC for distribution to the rest of the building. “Complexity creates waste,” says Patchett. At Prineville, the UPS sytems are distributed, each one “symbiotic with the server it supports,” reducing the number of conversions needed.

While the center has some impressive features, Facebook has not received universal applause for its efforts. The company took some heat from Greenpeace for choosing a site served by Pacific Power, a utility that produces most of its electricity from coal. Through a social media campaign called “Unfriend Coal,” Greenpeace convinced Facebook to reconsider its siting policies to emphasize renewable energy and “to work with us to lobby the utility in Oregon to increase the number of renewables it’s supplying,” according to Casey Harrell, senior IT analyst at the nonprofit.

Greenpeace is not trying to pick on Facebook and other tech companies that are attemptimg to do good, says Harrell, who praised Prineville for its efficiency innovations. Rather, it is trying to raise awareness about an industry that is “growing like gangbusters” and has a larger environmental footprint than most people realize. “If the cloud were a country, the cloud would be the sixth-largest country in terms of electricity use,” he says. Harrell added that the organization plans to leverage its success with Facebook to help push other large IT companies toward making similar commitments to renewable energy.

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