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Facebook Open Sources Green Data Centre Hardware

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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Facebook shared specs for its custom built low-energy servers, but Greenpeace is not impressed

Facebook has released the low-energy data centre and server specifications used in its Oregon data centre. Other IT companies including Dell and HP plan to adopt and develop them, but Greenpeace is continuing its campaign to get Facebook to move to renewable energy.

In the Open Compute project, Facebook has published the details of the “vanity free” custom technology it had made for its first dedicated data centre in Prineville, Oregon. The specifications are open source, and IT companies are planning to use and develop them.

However, environmental campaigner Greenpeace maintains that Facebook should be reducing its carbon footprint by moving from coal-fired electricity to renewable sources. “Efficiency is simply not enough,” said a Greenpeace statement. “If Facebook wants to be a truly green company, it needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.”

‘Vanity free’ servers shared with rivals

“The server is a little bit of a hack,” said Jonathan Heiliger, vice president of technical operations at Facebook (pictured). “It is vanity free,” he added, meaning the servers have no frills.

The servers, custom-made by companies  including AMD, Intel and Power-One for the power supply, weigh six pounds less than comparable servers.

“That is six pounds less embodied energy,” said Heiliger. The servers include fewer components and use the data centre fans for cooling in preference to those on the server chassis.

As well as server and power supply specifications, Facebook is publishing the data centre cooling details, and server and battery rack designs, including technical specs and mechanical CAD (computer aided design) files.

“We think it’s time to demystify the biggest capital expense of an online business — the infrastructure,” said Heiliger, at a media event at Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

Other online giants such as Google, Twitter and Amazon closely guard their data centre and hardware specifications to keep a competitive edge, he said.

Is efficiency enough?

Facebook now serves more than 600 million users, and has been the target of a sustained campaign by Greenpeace, which recently paid for TV adverts in California, calling for the social media giant to “unfriend” coal, and announce a move to renewable power  before Earth Day (22 April).

Facebook’s data centre is one of the world’s most efficient, using economisers based on water evaporation instead of refrigeration. The company has worked with chipmakers AMD and Intel and server providers HP and Dell, spending tens of millions of dollars building custom servers and power supplies in the past year.

These data centre solutions delivered a 38 percent increase in energy efficiency at 24 percent lower cost, compared to Facebook’s existing facilities, claimed Heiliger, and also gave it a power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratio of 1.07, compared with 1.5 for Facebook’s existing facilities.

However, it takes its electricity from the local supplier, PacificCorp, which mostly uses coal-fired generators.

Other online companies have publicly supported renewable sources for part of their energy needs, with  Google using wind power and investing in a German solar plant. Meanwhile,  Yahoo is using hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls, but Facebook has argued that using energy more efficiently is enough.

Using the specifications

Dell said it will design and build servers based on the Open Compute Project specification, and Synnex Corporation will sell Open Compute Project servers, which save on weight and materials because they have no paint, logos, stickers, or front panel.

Hosting provider Rackspace, which already supports the OpenStack project that is producing open source cloud software, is also getting on board: “Open technology standards and industry collaboration accelerate innovation and better serve our customers,” said Lanham Napier, CEO of Rackspace. “The Rackspace team has visited and studied Facebook’s next-generation data centre, our engineers continue to collaborate, and we look forward to optimising OpenStack for Open Compute.”

Amazon Web Services vice president and engineer James Hamilton, vice president and distinguished engineer was impressed by a tour of Facebook’s Prineville centre. “I saw an unusually large number of elegant designs ranging from one of the cleanest mechanical systems I’ve come across, three phase 480VAC directly to the rack, a low-voltage, direct current, distributed uninterruptable power supply system, all the way through to custom server designs,” he said in his personal blog.

Greenpeace still not convinced

Despite these efforts, Greenpeace said Facebook was missing the point by not using renewable energy. “It’s commendable that Facebook is working to increase the energy efficiency of its business, and specifically its data centres — an area of neglect for many years,” said a Greenpeace statement. “But as the global warming footprint of the IT industry, and Facebook specifically, continues to grow significantly, a focus on energy efficiency alone will only slow the speeding train of unsustainable emissions growth.”

To reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, Facebook needs to  “decouple its growth from its emissions footprint by using clean, renewable energy to power its business instead of dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power,” said the statement.

Clint Boulton contributed to this article