Facebook's Weird, Warm Data Centers Reach The Mainstream

December 03, 2014

Getting weird and warm isn’t the exact sales pitch of Vantage Data Centers, although it might as well be. The Santa Clara, Calif., company is a player in the wholesale data center market, running large data centers and renting space in the facilities to others. While the model is not novel, Vantage has tried to put a fresh twist on the business. It is adopting some of the more radical computing infrastructure ideas developed by such companies as Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon, (AMZN) and Facebook (FB) and then offering its customers a chance to save money if they’re willing to give the cutting edge technology a try.

Vantage, for example, has built something it calls V2 in the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s a 45,000 square-foot facility that uses outside air, instead of air conditioning, to cool computers. The building also has automated systems to control the humidity and expel waste heat. The effect of these and other measures? Vantage has built one of the most energy-efficient data centers available for rent.
The data center is modeled on the types of facilities Facebook has been building for several years through its Open Compute project. Facebook has championed the idea of letting outside air waft into data centers and then pass through a series of wall-mounted filters and water misters before cascading down onto servers. It also stacks tens of thousands of servers very close together and runs them at higher temperatures than traditional systems in a bid to save on power. A Facebook data center in Sweden is believed to be the world’s most efficient.

Coming out of the dot-com boom, Google pioneered the rethinking of data center designs. Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and other consumer Web giants all made subsequent contributions to infrastructure science. This type of work is a must for these companies because they run hundreds of thousands of servers and need to lower computing costs as much as possible to support the free services they offer consumers.

Chris Yetman, vice president of operations at Vantage, knows all about the consumer Web ways. He spent two decades working on IT infrastructure and previously served as vice president of infrastructure operations for Amazon’s AWS cloud computing systems. Since he came to Vantage, Yetman has looked to introduce the radical data center designs to more traditional businesses that have been somewhat reluctant to get aggressive with their computing systems and then push them to the limit.

Vantage has a mix of customers, from online gaming companies to data analysis ventures and software makers. They’re all similar in that they need to run a substantial number of systems. They also have tried-and-true ideas as to how many servers should be placed in a given area and how hot they should run. Yetman has been trying to convince some to rethink their policies. Where most companies like to operate their servers in an environment approaching a refrigerator, Yetman wants them to start thinking sauna. “Customers have tended to want to run their systems between 65 and 80 degrees,” he says. “But if the customer will let me, I’ll go up to 90 degrees.”

The science is there to back up the warmer approach. Computing systems have improved a lot over the years, and they run better in hot conditions than most people expect. And huge advances in software make it possible to keep performing complex computing functions, even when a few servers go down. Still, customers need persuasion to try out the new methodologies. “It’s all psychological at this point,” Yetman says. “If they want to save money, we can work with them to set up the parameters and run at costs closer to the cloud guys.”

(Bloomberg Businessweek)