“Feel the little vent on the side of your laptop. It’s warm, right?” Neil Sheehan, principal of Sheehan Partners, Ltd., is describing to me the particulars of a recently completed project—a Facebook data center in Prineville, Oregon. “Now, imagine stacking 42 of those that are far more powerful, one on top of the other; that would be a cabinet. 28 cabinets make up one row, with a total of 56 rows. Then double all that—because it’s just one side of the building. Now double that again because it goes lengthwise as well.” Data centers are an architectural speciality, high-security hubs where incredible amounts of energy are constantly coming and going. “You’ve got to get lots and lots of power very reliably to all the equipment, then find a way to get rid of all that heat,” Sheehan explains.
In collaboration with Facebook engineers and Altatech, the firm created what is essentially a massive vessel designed to keep all that machinery happy at a constant 72 degrees. “Ideally you’d put all those servers out in a big field and let the wind blow around so you wouldn’t have to cool them at all,” Sheehan says. “This is essentially a secure building wrapped around those computers acting like that big field.” In a super-simplified version of its inner-workings, outside air is drawn in from the west, down through the floor into the 164,000-square-foot computer room where fans pull it up and through a set of holes above, so the hot air is isolated from the incoming cold air. Along that path, misters blow very a fine moisture into the air stream that has a humidifying and cooling effect.
"Traditionally these types of buildings are entirely closed up," Sheehan says, "like big, solid, dark, black boxes.” Here, however, an interior courtyard allows for connection with the elements in a protected environment, and all-in-all a more people-friendly environment for employees who work on-site. Prineville also represents a new wave of facilities developed from Open Compute; the platform, founded by famously hack-friendly Facebook engineers, open sources "all the technical things that go into designing the equipment—the physical stuff—that will then operate the software that people can use," Sheehan explains. The site will post all the specs and mechanical drawings for its projects, with the hope that the community will chime in with suggestions and improvements. "It’s something everyone can benefit from."
And it’s only the beginning; further evolutions of this model are under construction for Facebook in Forest City, North Carolina, and Lulea, Sweden. For an industry often shrouded in secrecy, it’s an interesting step forward that could prove hugely beneficial in saving energy in data centers across the globe.