How the cool night air of the desert led Facebook to Prineville, Oregon

For the longest time, I assumed that Facebook chose Prineville, Oregon for its new data center because of hydroelectric power.

After all, Google, Microsoft, Dell, Intuit and others established massive data centers in the region because of cheap electricity derived from the Columbia River. But The Economist interestingly points out that Prineville — located in central Oregon about 90 miles from the Columbia– actually derives most of its electricity from coal.

Say what? So, why did the social networking powerhouse choose central Oregon for its expanding data center operation?

The Economist notes that Facebook’s Prineville facility is pioneering a new type of cooling technique which draws on the cold night air of the desert to keep servers cooled.

Seattle reporter Glenn Fleishman — who authored the piece and is working on a series of stories for The Economist– writes:

It does away with expensive air-conditioning “chillers.” Instead, air is brought in from outside. For this approach to work, however, the desert is key. For much of the year outside air is actually cool enough to keep the servers from overheating. At the lowest temperatures, just the gentlest of breezes needs to be brought inside at all. And, this being the desert, nights are chilly irrespective of the season, so even in the summer additional cooling is only needed during the hottest times of day.

The piece goes into great detail on how the system works, including how dust storms, grass fires or volcanic blasts could require the facility to shut off the cool-air intake systems. A recent insect infestation of “Biblical” proportions also caused some crafty workarounds.

Worth a read. Check it out here.

  • Jakers

    Is it hard to link to the original article that your whole post is derived from?

    • johnhcook

      Oh man, that’s a total oversight on my part. I apologize for forgetting the link. (Now added in two spots above). I actually even Tweeted with reporter Glenn Fleishman before writing this post, so my apologies to him as well. 

  • Glenn Fleishman

    Thank you so much for the link. The great part of this from a local boy’s perspective (I grew up in Eugene, and have now lived in the Pacific Northwest for half my life) is that Facebook has a clearly sincere and ongoing effort to make Prineville a better place for companies to locate, and a better place to live. Unemployment is 16% there. The kinds of jobs that come through typically pay poorly. Facebook is already paying more than 50 people, plus 250 daily construction jobs (which will go up and down for various stages). They’re giving money to the community as an outright grant, participating in local events, and rainmaking. The data center’s manager is out calling up other companies and having them fly in to look around.

    Here’s a good example of how the community benefits and a reason more firms might locate there for cheap land and labor. Facebook applied for and has permission to have a new long-distance power line run from a different part of the state to improve redundancy. This will also let them tap up to 120 MW on demand up from the current 40 MW. That second power line will give most of Prineville a secondary source, reducing outages. Other businesses wanting to move to Prineville or expand there now will have reliable power and more of it.

    Likewise, they brought fiber in from two directions, and that can be leased from the firm that they’re leasing from. So another data center or a local call center or whatever can get the same capacity they would in a dense urban area.

    I’m hoping all this rainmaking helps in the high desert. It’s additive: it’s not jobs stolen from elsewhere (although some would wind up there instead of somewhere else). It’s raising the level of the water to float all boats, so that the cost of doing business is cheaper.