Facebook reveals server, data center designs

The company’s custom-built servers are 38% more efficient and 24% cheaper than others on the market.


In the movie “The Fight Club,” Tyler Durden, the character played by Brad Pitt, says, “The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.”

The same rule, by and large, has applied to the architecture of cloud computing—the massive, energy-hungry data centers 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 center in Oregon to others in the industry.

“It is time to stop treating data centers like fight club,” Jonathan Heiliger, Facebook’s vice president of technical operations, said at a news conference at Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.

Heiliger said that with a team of three engineers, Facebook had designed stripped-down servers that were 38% more efficient and 24% cheaper than those sold by major server makers. He also said that Facebook’s new data center, which is in Prineville, Ore., is being cooled entirely with air, helping to reduce both its energy bills and carbon footprint. The data center 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 criticized by some environmentalists for choosing Prineville as the location for its new data center, because the majority of the electricity is generated by coal. Facebook is also building a data center in North Carolina, where the local utility relies heavily on coal and nuclear power.

In building its own servers and data centers, 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 that by sharing the company’s designs, Facebook would benefit because as more companies adopt those designs, the cost of the custom servers would decline. Companies like Zynga said they were considering using Facebook’s designs.

Heiliger also said that by getting rid of air-conditioning systems that cool most data centers, the Prineville one had drastically reduced power usage effectiveness (PUE). While the average data center has a PUE of 1.5, the Prineville facility has a PUE of 1.07. Google, Microsoft and other large data center operators have also claimed PUE 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. Heiliger said Facebook had tens of thousands of servers but declined to say how much electricity the company gobbled up.

Read the full blog post here.

- Edited by Bettina Chang, Consulting-Specifying Engineer, www.csemag.com

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