F rom the outside, it looks like an enormous grey warehouse. Inside, there is a hint of the movie Bladerunner: long cavernous corridors, spinning computer servers with flashing blue lights and the hum of giant fans. There is also a long perimeter fence. Is its job to thwart corporate spies? No – it keeps out the moose.
Welcome to the Node Pole , a hi-tech hub in Luleå, northern Sweden, and the site of Facebook’s first datacentre outside the US. The warehouse opened in 2013 and is set amid a green pine forest, lakes and an archipelago. The Arctic Circle is just down the road. A second centre next door is due to be completed later this year.
Facebook has four giant datacentres in the US, its newest at Fort Worth in Texas . Their construction is in response to the huge amounts of electronic data being generated around the world, at a rate that doubles roughly every 18 months.
In Facebook’s case, this means 350m photographs a day, 4.5bn likes and 10bn messages. The chances are that if you upload a selfie in London, or post a status update in Paris, your data will be stored in Luleå, home to migrating reindeer and the northern lights. Pull up a 2008 photo and it will be conjured from a server here too, with data storage now a multi-billion dollar industry.
According to Facebook, its Luleå warehouse is the most energy efficient computing facility ever built. It is cold in the Node Pole: winter averages -20C (-4F). Freezing air from outside is pumped into the building. It acts as a natural coolant, with hot air generated by the servers circulating out. Walls of axial fans keep temperatures constant.
The location was also chosen for its electricity supply. A century ago, Sweden began building hydroelectric dams for its steel, iron ore and pulp and paper industries. These have declined – though Luleå’s waterfront steel mill is still in business – leaving the northern region, Norrland, with a power surplus. Facebook’s data centre uses as much energy as the steel plant.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The datacentre in Luleå, northern Sweden, is Facebook’s first outside the US. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
According to Tom Furlong, Facebook’s vice president of infrastructure, the company has done a heck of a good job with energy efficiency. The goal, he says, is to run its datacentres on 50% clean and renewable energy by 2018. What about funnelling heat into a swimming pool? Furlong said Facebook thought about the idea but decided it was uneconomic.
The Luleå warehouse is vast, 300 metres wide by 100 metres long, and the size of four football fields, with three protruding square diesel generators, in the unlikely event the grid fails. Furlong said: “Architecturally, these are big buildings. They are not the Shard in London or Freedom Tower in New York, but as buildings put up for a purpose they are pretty darned good.”
Inside, the warehouse mixes Sweden with California. There is a six-sided snowflake with Facebook’s logo in the middle; colourful paintings of reindeer hang in reception; a blue graffitied Facebook covers a large wall above a bank of screens. Clocks give the time at the other datahubs in North Carolina, Iowa and Oregon. Most of the 150 employees are locals, and a team of cleaners trundle constantly around the complex.
Ville Sjögren, 28, the lead technician, says: “It’s exciting here. We’re at the front edge of technology. You get to see new stuff.” Sjögren was repairing a broken server on row 28B, holding a new memory stick. The servers – housed in endless black racks – were made using the open compute project , an initiative where tech companies share the designs of their datacentre products.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The computer servers are housed in endless black racks with twinkling blue lights. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The site manager, Joel Kjellgren, said Luleå had proved a great location. During the winter he sometimes skiied to work; one Facebook employee turned up on a snowmobile. Staff went ice-fishing together. Kjellgren says: “Two weeks ago, I was biking home and there was a northern lights display. I stopped my bike and took a photo. You get really clear, crisp winters.”
The arrival of Facebook has put Luleå on the map. A delegation from the town flew to California in 2009 to meet with Silicon Valley executives. Matz Engman, the CEO of Luleå business and economic development, said that for the next two years, he lived on US west coast time – a nine-hour difference – as he lobbied to make the Node Pole a reality.
The marketing slogan was the work of a canny PR firm in Stockholm. Such was the secrecy involved that Engman used a codename to discuss the Facebook warehouse: Project Gold. The town also pitched the fact that Sweden is one of the most secure and stable places in the world . Its last formal war was in 1814; seismic activity is extremely low.
Still, the Facebook project almost fell through. One local environmentalist said the new datacentre would damage birdlife, including the rare three-toed Swedish woodpecker that nests nearby. The Social Democrat-run municipality dismissed his objection. The town beat off competition from a rival in mid-Sweden and another in Norway. Facebook spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the building. Five other companies have now set up datacentres nearby.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The entrance to Facebook’s datacentre, where the interior design mixes Sweden with California. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Engman says: “This is a completely different city. It’s given us a tremendous sense of pride and self-belief. This should never have happened here.” Facebook’s co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has yet to drop by. But in 2012 he used the site to like a giant like built from ice and erected in a park. The photo went viral, attracting 1,000 likes a minute, and flooding Luleå’s normally sleepy civic webpages with global traffic.
Facebook has also transformed the town’s sensibility. Traditionally, northern Sweden is known for its gritty working class and laconic residents who say little and sometimes breathe loudly to signify yes. In the past, the cultural traffic has all been in one direction: from the sparsely populated north to the milder south, with its greater job opportunities.
Now, the flow is in the other direction. The numbers applying for computer science courses at Luleå’s technical university have gone up, according to Peter Parnass, a professor there whose own company was bought by Google. There are also new hotels and restaurants in Luleå’s small centre, including a fancy grillhouse where for 400 Swedish krone you can eat moose. (It was delicious, more tender than you might expect).
Outside the datacentre, meanwhile, is a single bike adorned with the Facebook logo. Given the long, dark winters and sub-zero temperatures, would it not make sense to have a Facebook snowmobile instead? Zuckerberg would surely like that too. Kjellgren replies: “I’ve had numerous requests for a branded Facebook snowmobile. We do get two metres of snow. I’m thinking about it.”
Luke Harding flew to Luleå as a guest of Facebook