Free cooling lures Facebook to Arctic's edge

Data center in northern Sweden will use outside air year-round to cool machines, draw on renewable hydroelectricity for power

In a move that will further bolster Facebook's green data center credentials, the social networking giant plans to build an enormous new 120MW data center in Luleå, Sweden, just 62 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The company will make the official announcement Thursday, according to the Telegraph.

The allure of the locale is three-fold: First, it's a prime location for taking advantage of free cooling -- that is, using outside air to chill machines instead of running costly CRAC (computer room air conditioner) units 24/7. Second, dams on the Luleå river generate an abundance of renewable electricity -- enough so that half is exported -- so Facebook needn't worry about an energy shortfall any time soon. Third, Sweden has a dense fiber-optic network, which means data can flow reliably and easily through Finland and on into Eastern Europe and Russia.

For the past few years now, organizations have struggled with strategies to cut costs and energy consumption within their data centers. Free cooling has proven a paricularly desirable technique as the cost of generating artificially chilled air can be quite considerable. Facebook employs free cooling at its data center in Prineville, Ore., for example, though the AC sometimes needs to be turned on during the summer. That contributes to the facility's remarkably low PUE (Power Utilization Effectiveness); Facebook claims the figure is 1.07.

This new Luleå facility -- the first Facebook data center to be built outside the United States -- could be cooled freely throughout the year: The average temperature in the region is around 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Telegraph, and the temperature has not exceeded 86 degrees for more than 24 hours for the past 50 years. ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) recommends operating data centers at a temperature range of 64.4 to 80.6 degrees.

Notably, server vendors are taking note of the growing trend toward using outside air to cool datacenters. Earlier this year, Dell began to warranty servers running in temperatures as high as 133 degrees.

The abundance of renewable energy is another boon for Facebook, as it earns the company eco-points by reducing its overall carbon footprint. Other data center operators, too, have turned to alternative energy to cut operation costs and to improve cut emissions. Google, for example, has a huge solar installation, while Fujitsu installed a hydrogen fuel cell at its Sunnyvale, Calif., campus.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.