By Harry McCracken | Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 10:55 pm
Back in April, I attended a press event at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters, at which Mark Zuckerberg rhapsodized about the company’s new data center in Prineville, Oregon–the first one it built for itself. It was interesting. But it wasn’t nearly as interesting as visiting the Prineville facility for myself, which I got to do this week along with a few other journalists. It’s the place where Facebook lives–and an awful lot of effort goes into making sure that the site loads up quickly and reliably every time every one of those 800 million active users pays a visit.
It may take a lot of effort to make Facebook hum, but it doesn’t take a lot of people on site in Prineville. The 333,400-square foot facility has tens of thousands of servers–Facebook would prefer not to get any more specific than that–but it takes only 55 people to run it, about half of whom are involved in security. (On the other hand, the construction project created 1400 temporary jobs.) Still, the arrival of a Silicon Valley giant has had a big impact on Prineville, a small community smack-dab in the middle of Oregon in an area once called “the Tibet of North America,” and until recently best known as the former headquarters of the Les Schwab tire-store empire.
Our tour was led by Ken Patchett, the Prineville site manager, and a veteran of data centers operated by Google, Microsoft, and Compaq. Here are some photographic highlights; you’ll see him in a couple of the pictures.
Behold the napkin where the idea that became the Prineville data center was first sketched out.
Patchett stressed to us that it’s crucial that Facebook and Prineville form a bond, so that nobody in town perceives the social-networking giant as an interloper from the big city. The Prineville facility is full of vintage photos of local citizens, such as these gents posing with Old Scout, an Oldsmobile that was the first car to reach the area.
A modern item of Prineville memorabilia: A Facebook quilt made by quilters at the Prineville Senior Center, showing how Facebook connects the world.
Our tour included a visit to a wall which traced the entire history of communications. It began with cave paintings, hieroglyphics, and the Rosetta Stone and ended with–you guessed it–Facebook. (Patchett compared his employer to both a clay tablet and a mix tape during his walkthrough.)
Here’s a giant Like button, created for the grand opening of the Prineville facility..
Press it, and it lights up!
The data center has a fine gnome garden..
A close-up of the servers that stores content from Facebook. Your profile could be right here.
The simplified, streamlined servers built using the Open Compute Project design that originated at Facebook are designed to run cooler than traditional ones. In fact, the area around them is noticeably less sweltering than the one near the old-school severs. (The use of Open Compute servers helps the Prineville center use energy at about half the rate of a plain-vanilla data center–a feet that led to it receiving LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council this week.)
The servers involved in financial transactions are caged off in a special limited-access area; Patchett says “we treat this like a bank.”
The servers are so reliable that the data center employees only four technicians to fix them. But when something does break down, they use these mobile repair carts. “Have you ever walked a half-mile to get a screwdriver?” says Patchett.
When the Prineville employees take a break, they can play games in a rec-room like area. (I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the fact that Microsoft owns a chunk of Facebook, but the space is outfitted with Xbox 360s.)
After the thousands and thousands of servers themselves, the second most impressive thing at Prineville is the amount of space and equipment devoted to keeping everything running cool, including a bank of ginormous fans, each the size of an industrial-strength clothes washer.
On the left of this area are louvers that move air around; on the right are vast numbers of air filters.
Here’s an enormous tank where water used in cooling is stored.
While the data center gets its power from the local utility company–there’s been some controversy over the fact that it’s mostly from coal–Facebook does maintain a bank of diesel-powered generators in trailers just in case.
Here are some solar panels–and if you squint, you can see construction going on in the background. It’s building #2, a carbon copy of the one I visited. And Facebook has enough land here to build building #3.
For a desert-like area, Prineville has a lush golf course–and Facebook is doing its part to keep it lush by donating water it uses to cool the data center once it’s done with it.
The Prineville data center is remarkable, but it’s only part of the Facebook data-center story. The company also has facilities in North Carolina and Virginia–and it recently unveiled plans to build one in Sweden–where the Arctic chill will provide a formidable source of natural cooling for all those servers.