Tuesday 25 October 2016

Facebook's 31,000 sq m data centre in Meath to be up and running by 2018

Paul O'Donoghue

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

Facebook employee Charlotte Ens at the company's data centre near Lulea in northern Sweden Photo: Frank McGrath
Facebook employee Charlotte Ens at the company's data centre near Lulea in northern Sweden Photo: Frank McGrath
Facebook data centre director Niall McEntegart Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Some of the racks of servers in the massive complex Photo: Frank McGrath

Facebook's new data centre in Co Meath will be up and running within two years.

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The 31,000 sq m facility in Clonee - the second of its kind for the company in Europe - will be powered entirely by renewable energy, wind. Construction work is due to start within months and Facebook said the site would be packed with cutting-edge technology, making it one of the most advanced, efficient, and sustainable data centres in the world.

All the racks, servers, and other components have been designed and built from scratch as part of the Open Compute Project, an industry-wide coalition of companies dedicated to creating energy- and cost-efficient infrastructure solutions and sharing them as open source.

Ireland has been home to Facebook's international headquarters since 2009.

Gareth Lambe, head of Facebook Ireland, said he was excited about the investment.

"Like its predecessors, this project will generate hundreds of millions of euro in economic activity and support hundreds of jobs in the local community," he added.

And at a Facebook centre at Lulea, Irishman Niall McEntegart is heading up the data centre operations.

"Once you start feeling ice crystals on your eyebrows and inside your nose just from breathing, you know you're definitely not in Louth any more," he laughs.

It is hard to put into words how cold Lulea is. Although the coastal town of 75,000 inhabitants looks like something ripped straight from a holiday card - the mercury regularly dips below minus 30C.

Lulea is located in one of the most inhospitable regions in Europe, just below the Arctic Circle. Although the freezing climate does not feel extreme at first, just minutes of exposure is enough to leave skin red-raw. Frostbite can develop in under half an hour on colder days.

In other words, it's the perfect weather for a data centre, which generates huge amounts of heat.

Mr McEntegart, Facebook's director of data centre operations for the East US and Europe, moved to the town for about a year in 2013 to help get the data centre up and running.

The Louth native oversaw the construction of the centre, the first of its kind that Facebook built outside of the US. The centre itself is a 10-minute drive from the town, although it seems much more remote. From the outside, the centre looks like something out of a James Bond movie. Tucked away in a forest of snow-covered pine trees, 300 metres long and 100 metres wide, the centre is big enough to accommodate the football pitch in the Aviva Stadium several times over.

The unforgiving environment has some upsides, one being that the daily commute for the company's staff is generally a bit more interesting than sitting in urban traffic jams. Skiing is relatively common, and some drive snowmobiles from as far as 60km away.

McEntegart isn't quite as adventurous on his daily commute. Although he cycles in during the summer - when temperatures hit a positively tropical 15 degrees during the day - a taxi is the main mode of transport during the icy-cold winters.

Thankfully, Facebook's next planned data centre will be much closer to home. The tech giant is set to start work "as soon as possible" on a data centre in Clonee, Co Meath, in what will be an investment of several hundred million euro.

Right now, when you update your status in Dublin or upload a picture of your trip to Galway, it is likely that your data is stored in Lulea. While Facebook does not give the exact storage capacity for the centre, McEntegart says the facility stores "about 2bn photographs a day, or about 25,000 photos every single second". The closest he can give to exact numbers is to say that the centre would be "a bit bigger" than some of the company's other facilities that would store about three exabytes - or three billion gigabytes - of data.

However, he explains that despite its vast storage capacity, the centre will eventually hit a peak. The data centre in Ireland is being opened due to the company's rapid global expansion which doubled its number of daily users from just 500 million in 2011 to more than a billion by the end of 2015.


The facility in Clonee, which it is hoped will be online in late 2017 or early 2018, will be 31,000 sq m, similar in size to the centre in Lulea. Like its Swedish counterpart, Clonee will be powered entirely by renewable energy - in our case, wind.

The centre is also aided by the climate. Freezing air is pumped into the centre and acts as a natural coolant for the thousands of servers storing users' data.

Inside, the centre mixes both a hip, modern and industrial look. Front of house is the main work area for the bulk of the 150 full-time employees. This encapsulates the typical US tech-company feel, with two different murals on the wall, an open, breezy space with a spectacular view of the frozen terrain outside, and a games room with consoles and pool tables to the side.

But the adjacent server room is completely different.

Clean, white walls house more than a dozen rows of server racks. Each black rack contains thousands of computer hard drives blinking with multi-coloured lights, every one hosting massive amounts of data.

These servers have had a huge impact on Lulea. While steel was the main industry in the town, Facebook's presence here has meant that the town has now repositioned itself as a miniature tech hub. Enrolments in local technology courses are up, 10 data centres have been built in the region since Facebook's arrival and over the last three years, housing has doubled in price.

Facebook estimates that by 2020 the data centre will have brought an economic impact of about €1bn in Sweden and nearly 2,200 jobs, two thirds of which are in Lulea.

It is hoped that the new centre in Clonee, where "dozens of long-term operations jobs" will be created, can have some sort of similar impact on the local area in Meath.

McEntegart said that the site was chosen for a variety of reasons, with its proximity to Dublin, where the tech giant has its European headquarters, being perhaps the most obvious one.

"[It] created a level of synergy that we don't have anywhere else on the planet in Facebook," he said.

He added: "[The site] is pretty much shovel-ready, there is good access to power and fibre.

"The climate is really good and the country is stable politically, seismically even, in terms of earthquakes it is good. Availability in relation to labour as well was huge, there is a huge skills pool in Ireland in relation to data centres."

Meath County Council chief executive Jackie Maguire hopes Facebook's presence will help attract similar companies to the region, as in Lulea.

"For every one job you create, there is a spin-off of at least three or four additional jobs, whether it is in hotels, catering facilities or services like that," she said.

Irish Independent

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