The Eco-Friendly Data Center

We live in a world where performance is measured in milliseconds (nanoseconds even), gigahertz, megawatts, teraflops and other metrics both physical and virtual.

To say that technology is improving at a blistering pace would be a gross understatement. Every last decimal point counts, and cost is always of the utmost importance.

Data centers are no exception to this trend. Racks and racks of top-shelf hardware run 24/7/365, fans screaming at 10,000 RPM and CPUs sizzling.

This is why I was refreshingly surprised to see Facebook, one of the premier tech companies make a move somewhat incongruent with today’s trends. Facebook certainly puts plenty of time and effort into making their products perform well, have frictionless user experiences, and cost as little as possible (free).

However, this week they revealed that with the introduction of their new 3 exabyte (3.2 billion gigabytes) “cold storage data facility” they are going to accept slightly slower performance in the interest of being more eco-friendly and cost-effective.

Specifically, they’re going to automatically transfer many older user-uploaded photos to this new facility which will cost 1/3 less to operate while being five times more energy efficient than typical “hot storage” data centers. The key difference for this data center is that most of its servers will be idling or “asleep.”

This decision was made in part due to data suggesting that of the 240 billion photos and videos that have been uploaded to Facebook, most traffic is directed towards just 8% of them.

While end users will barely notice a difference—we’re likely talking hundreds of milliseconds at worst—this could have a profound effect on how other large corporations approach product performance vs. environmental impact decisions.