Apple and Facebook sow their data-farms

Tech giants are builiding off-campus data centres for storage

From above, the warehouses look as nondescript as a Costco. But inside they house the backbones of some of today’s biggest, most important companies. As online services like cloud computing grow, and people move to store more of their lives online, the push is on to build ever more efficient and secure data centres. Firms like Facebook, Google and Apple have spurred a mini-building boom in server farms for the computers that keep their services humming.

In Prineville, Ore., Facebook recently built a 330,000 sq.-foot data centre. It uses outside air to keep computers from overheating (most centres use pricey air conditioning to regulate temperature). Next door is a smaller, 62,000 sq.-foot building dubbed “Sub-Zero.” It will house a new type of backup storage system that powers down when not in use, further cutting electricity consumption. Facebook is surprisingly transparent about its centre’s features. Many rival operations boast security guards and iris scanners, and their precise locations are kept secret. Recently, aerial shots of Apple’s new 500,000 sq.-foot facility in Maiden, N.C., were released by Wired. Apple is also building a 21,000 sq.-foot “tactical data centre” on the same lot. Some speculate it could be a biofuel cell plant to power the centre. Apple is also said to be building another new data centre in Reno, Nev.

Data centres tend to be built in Oregon, North Carolina and Virginia due to the cheap, plentiful electricity and generous tax incentives. In turn, the centres have sparked a mini-employment boom in local communities. Facebook reportedly spends $3.5 million in payroll for its data-farm employees.

In Canada most big data centres are owned by companies like Bell and Telus. When they were first built, the hope was that post-9/11 fears about information access under the U.S. Patriot Act would push companies to store data in Canada. But “it hasn’t been that lucrative,” says Darin Stahl, lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, who notes those fears proved unjustified. For now, all those Facebook postings and iTunes songs you store “online” are really at home in a U.S. warehouse.