A Rare Tour Of Facebook's Hardware Labs And The Amazing Stuff It Builds There

People share more than 4.75 billion things every day on Facebook, like status updates, wall posts, photos, videos and comments,
Facebook says.They also “Like” more than 4.5 billion things daily and send more than 10 billion messages.

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It requires a mind-boggling huge technical infrastructure to deliver all of that — hundreds of thousands of servers, hard drives, and so on.

A few years ago, Facebook started building its own hardware to come up with ways to make these things cost less, use fewer parts and less electricity, yet perform better than products offered by typical enterprise tech companies like IBM, HP, Dell, and Cisco.

Google and Amazon design their own hardware too, but those companies are secretive about their creations. Facebook not only talks about its hardware, it gives these designs away for free, a concept called “open source hardware.”

It wants people to use its designs and contribute their own ideas. About two years ago, it launched a project called the Open Compute Project to take charge of its open source hardware and there’s been an upwelling of interest for OCP all over the world. Anyone can grab a design, fine-tune it and send it to OCP-certified contract manufacturers.

Ultimately this project could change how all enterprise hardware is designed and bought, upending a massive market that currently generates more than $US100 billion a year.

We previously showed you about a dozen-game changing hardware products that OCP has already produced.

On a recent visit to Facebook, we were given a rare tour of the Facebook hardware labs, a mechanical engineer’s dream playground where much of this stuff gets invented.

Eral Tal, a hardware design manager, stands in the main design lab. He's been with Facebook for over three years and watched the design team grow from a handful of people to over 25 today.

Facebook's Eral Tal, a hardware design manager

Here's another view of the main design lab.

The three grey boxes (to the right of the notebook) are all things Facebook invented. Left to right: The 'Winterfell' server for serving up Web pages; the 'Knox,' a box filled with hard drives for hosting photos (with green handles); An older version of Winterfell. OCP is cranking out new hardware every few months and new generations of hardware every year. That's really fast.

Here's a closer look at the Winterfell Web server. Each green card is a computer server. Each box holds three computers. Facebook uses hundreds of thousands of these boxes. (On the previous page, note how the new Winterfell, just as powerful, is half the size of this one.)

Facebook invented Winterfell to get rid of screws. It replaced them with levers. If a server breaks, a technician pops up the lever and it slides out in seconds. Facebook only needs one technician for every 25,000 servers.

Tal and Michael Kirkland, engineering PR, show off how the Knox box tilts. Dozens of drives are stacked in that box spinning like tiny record players. Facebook invented a way to move and tilt them without breaking them.

The Knox hard drives and the Winterfell servers slide into fancy racks, also invented by Facebook, that are over 6-feet tall.

The Knox box tilts to let a technician get to all the drives, even without a ladder if the drives are up high.

Tal also helped invent a way to pop out the hard drives without a screw driver.

Pull the tab. And the hard drive swings out ...

A technician can put a new one in, in seconds.

On the rack, even the power supplies slide right out in seconds.

Because of the open source project, someone outside of Facebook figured out a new way to stuff more hard drives on a rack. This will about double the storage each rack holds without using more power. This is what 3 petabytes of storage looks like with the new method. That's 3.1 million Gigabytes. Facebook is testing it.

Like your laptop, enterprise hardware gets hot and will fry if it's not cooled off. This is the 'thermo lab' where Facebook tests eco-friendly ways to cool hardware.

The blue thing is a wind tunnel where they can test hardware cooled by air.

This is a server dunked in oil. Servers will actually work this way and never get hot. But ...

Facebook isn't using oil in its data centres yet because it's messy. It makes it hard for a technician to fix stuff.

The rubber ducky is private joke, Tal says. The guy that leads the OCP project, Frank Frankovsky, likes to go duck hunting.

This is a WATER COOLED server! Facebook has never showed it to anyone until now. It's generally not a good idea to use water with electrical equipment, but this hardware hack does work and no one was electrocuted while making it.

Facebook also has an 'oven room' where they literally bake the hardware. They are making sure these devices won't need air conditioning in their data centres, which is expensive and bad for the environment.

This is the mechanical lab, an engineer's dream. Here's where they build mock-ups with wood, metal, plastic ...

It even has a commercial 3D printer. That isn't a MakerBot. It's a Fortus and costs about $US15,000.

This board was made with the 3D printer. It holds computer chips.

The Facebook hardware labs are located in a corner of the engineering building filled with art was done by Facebook employees.

Look at the 'f' ...

It's made with old circuit boards.

These signs in the engineering office really show off Facebook's culture ...

'Think Big Move Fast,' 'Move Fast And Break Things' 'Slow Down And Fix Your Sh--,' 'They Came To Hack.' That's Facebook in a nutshell.

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