What we can learn from Facebook’s innovative arctic data centre

29 Aug
August 29, 2013

Data centres are getting more innovative.  These massive buildings which hold thousands of servers handling more and more of our everyday internet life.  As social networking and cloud computing increases, so does the size, power consumption and carbon footprint of these centres.

According to a study by Greenpeace conducted several years ago, data centres already account for 2% of global power demand and this figure is probably underestimated by a major factor today.  This percentage is expected to rise exponentially in the future as computing increasingly shifts to the “cloud”, as more and more of our life gets stored and processed at data centres.  Gartner even suggests that these data centres already account for 25% of carbon emitted and all energy consumed by the ICT sector.

But where does all the power come from to power your Tweets, blogs, updates, likes and pokes?  And with more data centres coming online can we sustain this in the future, or are we in danger of burning trees and dinosaurs from the past to fuel our future online desires?  Perhaps there’s an innovative approach that may tackle this problem in another way?

Story

You’ve probably never thought about the electricity consumed by those Google searches, Facebook updates and all the other things you do online, or even the size of your carbon footprint as you surf, update, blog and download, but here are some facts regarding the environmental impact of electronic communications and processes that may surprise you.  Facts that I’ve uncovered show that:

  • the carbon footprint of an email is 4g of CO2
  • the carbon footprint of a long email with an attachment is 50g of CO2
  • an email has the carbon footprint of about one sixtieth of a letter.  Great unless you mail shot sixty times more emails than you ever used to do with letters!
  • Google’s Oregon data centre, when full, will consume about the same amount of power as the city of Newcastle, UK, and
  • even a mortgage (£100,000 @ 5%) generates 800g of CO2 per year

Maybe we should start thinking about the impact we’re having; after all, we happily burn fossil fuels to generate electricity to power our data centres and this is a prime source of carbon dioxide emissions – the main gas associated with global warming.

Facebook understands these issues and as one of the major data centre operators – the others being Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – and it has positioned itself as a leader in tackling the issues associated with running these facilities.

The social networking giant has just commissioned a massive new data centre in Lulea in Sweden, its first such facility outside the US, and this centre runs entirely on renewable energy and uses less of it anyway.

One of the facts that Facebook loves to use is that 350 million photographs are uploaded every single day.  That’s a hell of a lot of holiday snaps – and one of the reasons that northern Sweden was chosen as the location.

In my post on 20.06.2013 I mentioned how Burt Rutan solved the problem of excessive heat generation during re-entry by slowing down the spaceship and avoiding the problem altogether.  Facebook has done the same.

Business context

One problem with data centres is the massive build-up of heat which has to be dealt with on a constant basis otherwise internal components could start melting.  By situating the data centre in an area that is permanently cool Facebook has almost cured one problem before it’s started.  Added to that the abundance of cheap hydroelectric power and you have the ideal – almost – unique setting for a data centre.  Oh, and the location chosen also has access to two separate and very secure network grid systems.  Result!

The overall effect of this unique location means the Lulea plant has 70% less energy intensive, expensive-to-run mechanical cooling capacity installed than the average data centre – which is great news.  Facebook also has a policy of sharing knowledge about its data centre through a programme called Open Compute, which is open source and freely available, meaning that everyone can learn and benefit.

Conclusions

As L&D professionals there’s so much learning we can take from Facebook’s experience.  Rather than spending money on fixing long-term problems, do whatever you can to avoid them in the first place.  Perhaps you can agree on success factors for your learning interventions up front rather than embarking on complex evaluation methodologies after the learning has taken place.  Perhaps you work with executives so that they demand learning for their staff rather than you trying to ‘sell’ it to them, therefore doing away with the need for you to undertake time-consuming business cases and perhaps you think about running a ‘training exchange’ with another company so that you make use of each others collateral and courses thereby reducing your development and support overheads.  Perhaps even, you schedule classroom courses through a local school, college or university and make use of their non-teaching time to secure low-cost accommodation.

Call to action

Take a long, hard look at some of the daily issues you face and consider how you can make use of the local resources to reduce the cost of your operation.  Great execution involves reducing waste wherever possible and Facebook’s examples should be an inspiration to us all.

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