The Altoona data center is Facebook’s fourth major data-center project after its initial foray into building its own data centers in Prineville, Oregon; Forest City, North Carolina; and Lulea, Sweden. Prineville is where Facebook really began pushing its hardware and infrastructure designs to improve energy efficiency. It’s where, infamously, a humidity-control problem led to literal rain in the cloud. “It was not rain,” Patchett corrects me when I ask about this. “We just hit dewpoint, which caused condensation.” It’s also where Facebook learned the lessons that became the foundation of the Open Compute Project, an initiative that open sources and shares components of data-center design. (Facebook is a sharing company.)
They’re also an extremely business-savvy company. As Patchett and Brice Towns, the Iowa data center’s operations manager, explain the Open Compute Project to me it becomes rapidly apparent that the open source of OCP isn’t the open source I’m more familiar with, the one of earnest broke geeks with over-stickered laptops. It’s the open source of Enterprise Business Solutions, of suited up people in conference rooms brokering deals. These are the folks who actually run Facebook, not the manic pixie dream hackers that make up Facebook’s mythology.
Essentially, they explain, OCP is a solution to a consumer-choice problem. If you think of Facebook as “a consumer” and not a corporation. Options for server configurations, network switches, generally any of the stuff that goes into making a data center, have been historically pretty limited to a few options from a few companies. These companies haven’t had much market incentive to increase efficiency or offer modular solutions. By open-sourcing those solutions, Facebook argues, it improves the market and the industry as a whole.
And they’ve managed to get other companies behind this idea. People from places like Rackspace, Intel, and Goldman Sachs (really big banks are increasingly inclined to build their own data centers than rely on enterprise services) are on OCP’s board, and its list of participating organizations includes companies like Cisco, HP, Bank of America, Huawei, and Samsung. Microsoft and Apple incorporate OCP hardware in their data centers, and contribute back to the project. HP and Foxconn are building and selling OCP-specified hardware.
The entrance to the server room where all of this hardware lives is behind both an ID-card reader and a fingerprint scanner. The doors open dramatically, and they close dramatically. It is only one of several server rooms at Altoona, but just this one room also seems endless. It is exactly the glimmering-LED cyberpunk server-porn dreamscape that it is supposed to be.
Towns shows me the racks, which hold machines stripped down to their most raw parts—motherboards and cables exposed, no bothering with encasing the equipment. He compares the creation of Facebook’s hardware to using Legos—taking apart a server, throwing out the bits that aren’t important, and using the ones that are important to “build just what we need to run the application.”