Here’s What Facebook IPO Money Can Buy (WSJ Speakeasy)

A post for the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, on the occasion of Facebook’s IPO. (link)

One afternoon last winter, I drove to the top of a high butte in central Oregon, overlooking the Crooked River and the Ochoco Mountains. Snow dusted the sagebrush, whipped by the winds. The only interruption to the emptiness was a long, low, concrete and steel building, set like a Donald Judd sculpture beneath the endless sky.

This was Facebook’s new data center, in Prineville, Oregon. Since being switched on last year—the day I visited, in fact—this 300,000 square foot building has become the primary machinery behind the blue and white screen. Running full tilt, it consumes 28 megawatts of power—compared to the 30 megawatts used by all of the homes and businesses of surrounding Crook County combined.

Inside its cavernous halls are tens of thousands of servers that store, process, consolidate and distribute a broad sweep of the online lives of Facebook’s 900 million users. In scale and shape, the place feels like the underground stacks of a library, with the books replaced by aisles upon aisles of stacked fluttering blue lights, each representing a hard drive, each filled with some piece of us. The building is tethered to the rest of the Internet via a bundle of fiber optic cables pulsing with nearly a terabit per second of data, 100,000 times more than a typical home connection; its underground path is marked by orange and white posts marching alongside the highway.

Facebook’s IPO today will raise more than $18 billion dollars. We tend to think of that amount of money as different kinds of abstractions: the “paper wealth” it has minted for its early investors; the “war chest” needed for acquisitions. But a significant portion of it can be thought of in these more tangible terms: like the semi-trucks that chugged up the hill in Prineville, their trailers cumulatively filled with $210 million of physical things: hard drives and web servers, networking equipment and fiber-optic cables, climate control systems and solar panels. One load included a special shredder, designed to obliterate broken hard drives—lest they be resold, along with the private pictures encoded on them.

Prineville is growing. A second 300,000 square foot building is under construction; with a possible third already approved. And Apple—recognizing the economic, climactic and resource advantages of Facebook’s choice of location—is building its own massive data center across the street. Prineville, reeling from the industrial collapse of the Pacific Northwest, is poised to be a new kind of high tech center.

Facebook is growing too. A second data center campus, identical to Prineville, is rising in Forest City, North Carolina. Next year, a third will join the fleet, in Lulea, Sweden, an even colder place—and a quicker digital hop to Facebook’s European users. All together, Facebook’s data centers currently contain 100 petabytes of users’ photos and videos, or more than 666 billion of them (a petabyte is one thousand terabytes).

In 2011, Facebook spent $606 million on servers, storage, network gear and data centers. This year, it expects to spend another $500 million, according to SEC filings. In comparison, Google spent $3.4 billion on infrastructure capital expenses in 2011. Those dollars represents the evolution of Mark Zuckerberg’s long-term insistence that Facebook be fast and robust; he has always argued that an unresponsive site is a frustrating one. This physical infrastructure is a crucial aspect of ensuring that performance. The Internet as a whole depends on places like this.

Often data centers are secreted away and closed off to visitors, their technologies and scale considered important competitive advantages. But Facebook has taken the opposite stance. Believing in the efficiency and innovation of the building’s design—and the environmental benefits of extending that to other parts of the Internet’s infrastructure—Facebook has published all the plans, all the way from the custom-designed motherboards to the unusual swamp cooler-like system that keeps the building cool. Architecture always expresses the ideals of an organization. In Facebook’s case, this meshes with Mark Zuckberg’s founding vision of making the world more open and connected. Facebook opens wide the doors of its data center, just like it opens wide our lives.