Node Pole

Facebook has decided to build a new data centre outside a remote city in northern Sweden. Richard Orange and Julian Lass pay a visit to find out what has drawn the social networking giant to this snowy outpost
Matz Engman is in a hurry. ‘We have some news today,’ says 
the energetic salesman who convinced Facebook to set 
up a data centre in Luleå, a Swedish city located just 112 kilometres from 
the Arctic Circle.

It’s only after our brief photo shoot in a snow-covered garden that he discloses the source 
of his excitement. ‘Mark Zuckerberg has “liked” 
our ice thumb, and it has overloaded our servers,’ he says. ‘The traffic is overloaded on all our 
sites. It’s amazing.’

The founder of the social-networking giant, browsing through his company’s sub-sites, had clicked on a photo of a sculpture of an upturned thumb, Facebook’s ‘like’ symbol, that the city’s mayor had had carved out of a block of ice in Luleå’s central square the previous winter.

That a single mouse-click from a 27-year-old entrepreneur, albeit one who was about to gain 
a US$15billion fortune, can lead the day’s news gives an indication of just how big a deal it was when Facebook decided to site its first overseas data centre here.

Once completed, the centre will store the photographs, chats and friendships of close to 
a billion people. The baby photo of a first-time mother in Phoenix, Arizona, will be whisked halfway around the world, with a delay of a little more than 50 milliseconds, to be stored here, in one of the most remote cities in northern Europe.

‘When Facebook came to Luleå, it was a milestone in the history of the city,’ says Karl Petersen, the mayor, when I meet him in the 
town square next to the city’s handsome red cathedral. ‘It’s good to have the brand of Facebook in Luleå. You can use it everywhere.’ Indeed, the town has already erected a sign beside the main road into Luleå telling visitors that they’re entering the ‘Home of Facebook’.

Creating a buzz
Luleå isn’t a total stranger to the tech industry. The local university hosted the world’s first GSM mobile phone call in 1989, and Ericsson and the phone company TeliaSonera both had research facilities here. Engman himself has a background as a web entrepreneur. But it’s predominantly an industrial town, the port through which the natural resources of Sweden’s far north – forestry, paper, iron ore and steel – reach the world.

It’s difficult to find anyone among the town’s 47,000 inhabitants who doesn’t know about 
the Facebook deal, even among the ageing men and women ice-fishing half a kilometre out to 
sea in front of the city’s ice-breakers. ‘Yes, I’ve 
heard of it,’ says 75-year-old Vivian Nordberg, 
as she sits on her spark, a type of Swedish 
kick-sled, next to her 77-year-old husband, Svante. 
‘But I don’t need Facebook – I’m too old. It’s enough with mobile telephones.’

Over at Café Metropol, a konditori almost unchanged since the 1920s, the locals sing Petersen’s praises for bringing in such a high-profile company. ‘Karl’s the best thing that has happened to this town in 100 years,’ says Patrick Applegren, 
an electricity executive. ‘He has the power to make things start to happen.’

The café now boasts its own Facebook 
page, even though the current owner, Åsa 
Ohlsson, doesn’t even have a computer. ‘I’m 
old fashioned,’ she says.

Good climate
At the university, the project is moving forward at speed. In a clearing hacked out of pine forest beside the Aurorum Science Park, the shell of the first barn has already been completed and is waiting for the first equipment to be installed.

Facebook is spending £450million building three barns to house 300,000–400,000 servers, using a total of 120 megawatts of power – more than the city’s steel industry. What drew it here is evident from the snow still surrounding the site. It’s mid-April, and it has only just started to disappear. ‘We knew that these data centres need a good climate,’ says Petersen. ‘The climate in Luleå is very good. We have a long winter and we never have more than 30°C.’

To be precise, the temperature in Luleå does occasionally go above 30°C, but it has done so for less than 24 hours in total since 1961. This means that the data centres can rely entirely on ambient cooling for the servers, drastically reducing their energy intensity.

Only a few years ago, data centres typically used as much energy to cool their servers and run the sites as they did on raw computation. Now, cooling and running Facebook’s server hall at Prineville, Oregon, which is nearly identical to the Luleå plant, uses only eight per cent more power than the servers themselves.

From the concrete floor of the server barn you can see a series of large rectangular openings through which air, cooled by dripping water in a chamber above, will fall to the server floor, before leaving the other side of the building, by which time it will have been warmed to 40°C.

Green credentials
The other chief attraction is renewable electricity. 
In 2011, Greenpeace began a campaign against data centres, pointing out that they consume as much 
as two per cent of global electricity, a figure that’s growing at 12 per cent a year.

Facebook has struggled with an Unfriend Coal campaign because Prineville draws 63 per cent of its power from the fuel. So Luleå’s surplus of green electricity from dams built on the mighty Luleå River is attractive, particularly as it comes with the lowest prices in Europe.

Because the local steel industry has built a back-up power grid to the town, blackouts are almost impossible. ‘Luleå hasn’t had a power outage since Nixon,’ says Engman.

The third draw is fibre. During the late 1990s, 
a pioneering government broadband strategy encouraged a rapid roll-out of fibre-optic cable 
in Sweden, leaving it with the world’s highest per capita rate of home connections.

Private companies then rushed to provide the backbone network that links Sweden’s cities. Many went bankrupt in the dotcom crash, leaving a lot of ‘dark’, unused fibre in the ground. The result is that Sweden is extraordinarily well connected, and Facebook can buy it’s own dedicated ‘dark fibre’ connection to the European mainland.

‘I don’t think they were insane investments,’ says Kurt Lindqvist, chief executive of Netnod, which runs Sweden’s six fibre-exchange points, and who was himself an entrepreneur during the broadband rush. ‘These fibre systems have a very long lifetime. We’re now seeing Facebook making use of them 15 years later, and that probably says something about the foresight in laying them in the first place.’

He estimates that the cables south from Luleå have a theoretical capacity of at least 30,000 gigabits per second. Close to 100 fibres have been laid, many of which are still unused, allowing for 50 two-way connections, each of which can run 60 wavelengths of 10GB each.

Network capacity
Imagine the vast volume of data entered and saved by Facebook’s 900 million users every second as they chat, upload photos and play social games online. According to Fredrik Kallioniemi, who last year replaced Engman as chief executive of the science park, the fibre-optic connections to Luleå could theoretically handle three times that amount of data. ‘I’m told that without any new fibre capacity, without any new investment, we can have one more Facebook and then one Facebook again,’ he says. ‘This is the Rolls-Royce of capacity.’

There are also several different routes along which the data can pass, reducing the risk of a loss of connection taking half of Facebook’s data offline. There are at least three separate fibre routes linking Luleå to southern Sweden: along the railway, along the coast and along the power lines.

Then there are the other routes to Europe via Norway, and across the nearby Finnish border to Russia. Indeed, 80 per cent of internet traffic out 
of Russia already crosses Swedish territory.

From Luleå, it takes the data just 24–25 milliseconds to get to Amsterdam, Europe’s 
main switching hub. That’s too long for financial institutions involved in high-frequency trading: those based in London can’t even afford to have their servers housed outside the M25. But it’s more than acceptable for most of Facebook’s customers, and Facebook reduces any drag by storing the parts of pages that are relatively static – that don’t change often – in so-called content-delivery networks much closer to the consumer.

Growing trend
Facebook wasn’t the first to make the move to Europe’s chilly northern climes. Google led the way in 2009 when it bought a disused paper mill in Hamina, Finland, and converted it into a sea-cooled data centre, which became operational in 2011.

In Iceland, Verne Global has built a data centre powered by a mix of hydro and geothermal energy. ‘There is a steady diffusion of data centres to remote sites,’ explains Richard Fichera, a data-centre analyst at the consultancy Forrester. ‘If you look at 
a climate map of the world, there’s a large band 
of geography where temperatures are good for ambient air cooling, and if you intersect this zone with power costs, network connectivity and political stability, you get some interesting options for location: Scandinavia, Alaska, a broad swath of the Pacific Northwest in the USA, even parts of the UK.’

Before selecting Luleå, Tom Furlong, Facebook’s director of site operations, looked at 22 cities in Sweden, as well as other sites in Norway and Finland. The process was highly secretive; Furlong used a front company called Pinnacle AB and refused to reveal who he really was.

Fortunately for Luleå, Engman had met Furlong when he visited the USA on an investment tour 
in 2009, so the city authorities knew who they 
were dealing with. ‘For everyone else, they were anonymous,’ says Engman. ‘They didn’t leave their business cards, they just said: “We’re Tom and Jay.”’

More to follow
Other web giants are apparently just as secretive, which is why Engman can’t disclose whether or not he’s in talks with another investor, although he says he expects other giants to follow in Facebook’s footsteps. ‘We see that data centres in North America are clustered in North Carolina and Oregon,’ he 
says. ‘When Facebook chooses an area, the other companies know that it hasn’t been playing darts. If one American company chooses Luleå, the others know that something good must be here.’

He says that one potential data centre investor described a former helicopter base at Boden, 37 kilometres north of Luleå, as ‘the best site in the world’. It’s right next to a hydroelectric dam, so, with minor modification to cables, it has access to 1,000MW of power, enough for ten data centres of the size that Facebook is building. The rumour in Luleå is that Apple, which is facing similar attacks from Greenpeace for its dirty, coal-powered iCloud, could be next in town, although that could be wishful thinking.

When I start talking about the competition outside Sweden, Engman switches to salesman mode, explaining why Iceland and Norway are bad choices. ‘Iceland has a problem, which is the ash cloud,’ he says. ‘If you are cooling servers with fresh air, that ash means it isn’t the perfect place to be.’

He says that the island nation’s connectivity, through new cables to North America and the UK, also isn’t good enough. ‘Facebook would never 
be based there, because of the ash and the fibre capacity,’ he concludes. As for Norway, he says, it’s both outside the EU and lacking in flat land.

Brand attraction
After Fredrik Kallioniemi, managing director of the Aurorum, has shown me around the site, he points out the skis piled into the back of his car – for his regular pre-work morning ski with his children 
on the nearby slopes. This outdoor lifestyle, with winters spent skiing and summers sailing around the 700 islands nearby, keeps at least some of the town’s young people from migrating south. But the local region, Norrbotten, has still seen its population fall by 15,000 since 1990, a six per cent decrease.

Facebook won’t create many jobs – about 300 are involved in the centre’s construction, and about 50–70 will be needed to help run the centre when it’s completed – but Petersen believes that having the brand in Luleå will nonetheless stop young people moving away. ‘I think it will be a big factor,’ says the mayor. ‘Everyone is talking about Ikea, but they have Ikea everywhere. There’s only Facebook in three places: Oregon, North Carolina and Luleå.’

January 2013

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