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Data centers and the arctic circle

I don’t think a lot of people consider the spatial implications of the online world. By this, I’m specifically referring to the massive data centers required to power the internet.

Earlier this year Facebook opened its first European data center in Sweden, less than 70 miles from the arctic circle. It’s 900,000 square feet. That’s about equivalent to a 102 storey condo tower.

Behind the virtual worlds we live in – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and others – lies nondescript buildings with repeating rows of machines inside them. They’re the complete antithesis of the vibrant lives we pretend to have on the consumer web, but they’re making it all possible. It feels just like the Matrix.

And there are some interesting shifts taking place in the data center space. Facebook – through its Open Compute Project – now designs its own centers and makes the work available to others, for free. It’s an “open hardware” play that could threaten incumbents in the space such as Dell and Cisco.

Facebook’s goal is “to build one of the most efficient computing infrastructures at the lowest possible cost.” Their Swedish outpost represents their first self-designed center. And it’s proven to be a highly efficient one.

While the average data center might use 3 watts to produce 1 watt of computing tower, Facebook’s Swedish center was able to get that ratio down to 1.04 : 1, largely because the colder climate allowed for a dramatic reduction in cooling loads. It makes a ton of a sense.

I’ve actually thought about this before. Why aren’t more data centers – which have massive cooling requirements – built in colder climates? I just so happen to know of a country with lots of prime arctic circle real estate.

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