Why are global media TNCs locating in cold environments?
This is a synoptic case study that brings together glaciation and globalisation, along with energy and rebranding! Facebook - a media TNC which is driving social and cultural globalisation - has chosen a cold environment in Luleå, Sweden, as the site for its newest data storage facility (called a "server farm"). Google also has its own cold climate data centre in Greenland.
This article explores how glaciated landscapes provide a range of opportunities, including hydro-electric power, that are increasingly exploited by media TNCs with enormous energy and data storage needs. We also take a look at how the business community in Luleå has sought to rebrand the town as a global technology network hub.
The geography of Facebook, a global media corporation
What factors attracted Facebook to Luleå in Sweden?
Facebook is a leading media transnational corporation (TNC) and an important architect of social and cultural globalisation. Its services allow users to build a global network of personal contacts with whom they are in constant real-time correspondence. Facebook is a major contributor to the shrinking world effect (also known as time-space compression).
A long-standing cliché about internet media services is that they have made geography "irrelevant". According to this argument, people can now communicate with others irrespective of distance or intervening obstacles (such as the oceans or relief features that keep them apart in the real world and which can impede traditional forms of transport and communications).
Yet physical geography has proven to be important in other ways for media companies like Facebook. As its scale of operations has grown, physical factors have become crucial in determining where data storage facilities are sited.
Facebook currently has more than 800 million users (and 900 million pages) despite being founded as recently as February 2004.
Users upload 100 million new photos each day, while 700 status updates are made every second. All this information must be stored and backed up on the company’s "server farms". These are storage facilities that are filled with cupboard-sized racks of computer servers (giant hard drives) that store and move data such as photos. "These slightly eerie, heavily guarded facilities are where sites such as Facebook and Google live" (Daily Mail, 28 October 2011).
These server farms and other data storage facilities are very expensive to run. Energy is used to power the servers and also to cool them down (with so many hard drives in constant use, temperatures soar, which can result in malfunctioning machinery).
As a consequence, more companies are placing their data centres in Northern Europe because the climate works well for the cooling systems necessitated by racks of huge servers. "Nordic countries now sell plants on the basis that their frosty locations will help cool computer equipment," says the Daily Mail (28 October 2011).
Google already possesses a data centre in a disused paper mill in Hamina, southern Finland, which has been using seawater from the Baltic Sea for its cooling system since 2009. Now Facebook is getting its own cold climate server farm too. In October 2011, the social networking TNC announced plans to set up a giant data storage facility in Luleå, Sweden.
Server farms are the hubs for global communications networks. They are the physical sites where data is stored and accessed by internet users. These hubs require a high level of protection (both virtually, using firewalls, and also in the real world, using security personnel). A loss of data, or interruption of service, could irreparably damage a company’s reputation.
Building multiple server farms and data centres, so that back-up copies of files can be kept, also helps an internet company to minimise potential hazard risks for itself. The BlackBerry mobile service was interrupted for three days in mid-2011 due to a data-centre crash, leading to a loss of customers (who were often critical of BlackBerry for not having enough data centres).
The energy consumption of server farms run by companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon is one of the fastest-growing sources of global electricity demand. "In the US, which hosts approximately 40% of the world's datacentre servers, their electricity consumption increased by nearly 40% during the economic downturn of 2007-2010. Each of Facebook's US datacentres is estimated to use the same amount of electricity as 30,000 US homes" (Guardian, 27 October 2011).
The ten largest server farms in the world are mostly located in the USA. They are:
The SuperNAP, Las Vegas
Microsoft Data Centre, Washington
CH1, Elk Grove Village
Phoenix ONE, Phoenix
Microsoft Dublin (EU)
Container Data Centre, Chicago
NGD Europe, Newport Wales (EU)
NAP of the Americas, Miami
Metro Technology Centre, Atlanta
Lakeside Technology Centre, Illinois
Source: Data Center Knowledge
Locating in a cold environment makes sense if you are building a heat-generating data storage facility that demands a potentially expensive cooling system. Facebook chose the Luleå site in Sweden because "it offered the best package of resources, including a suitable climate for environmental cooling, clean power resources, available land, talented regional workforce and supportive business and corporate environment." Here, we explore in detail these cold environment factors along with the Luleå business community’s rebranding efforts.
Facebook is a headquartered in Palo Alto, California, where computer facilities require plenty of expensive air-conditioning. No wonder the company sought out a cold environment for its new back-up facility! Facebook explored more than 100 sites in Europe, including 40 in Sweden, before finally choosing Luleå , a small town of 74,000 inhabitants.
The new Facebook server farm facility it will build there is designed to process data from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The site will cover 30,000 square metres (the size of 11 football pitches). Scheduled for completion by 2014, the total construction cost will be around $760 million.
Cold environment factors
Luleå has the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, USA and is part of Sweden’s coldest region. What is it about the physical site and situation of Luleå that Facebook finds appealing?
Low energy costs Luleå lies near hydroelectric power stations at the mouth of the River Lule as it flows into the Gulf of Bothnia. Throughout Scandinavia, glacial waters are used to power hydroelectric turbines, creating cheap and "green" electricity (with none of the purchasing costs or high carbon footprint associated with fossil fuels). In a nice act of reciprocity, the heat from the server racks will also warm up the local Facebook offices.
Flat land with room for expansion Located by the mouth of the river Lule, Luleå is sited on glacially-eroded terrain. The wide, flat valley floor is a perfect place for the construction of large industrial sites.
Cold climate Located 100 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, the town has a subarctic climate with short, mild summers and long, cold and snowy winters. Winter temperatures are well below freezing and summertime highs rarely climb above 25 degrees Celsius. For around eight months, the high-power computer equipment will cool itself at no cost using the icy outside air (in warmer months, it will use an advanced cooling system powered by evaporating water).
Hydroelectric power (HEP) plants have been used in Sweden to generate electricity for more than 100 years. HEP works by exploiting the potential energy of water as it flows from a higher level to a lower one. The power of the water rotates a turbine-shaft that in turn runs an electrical generator. The motive energy is transformed into electrical energy that is transported by a transformer to individual households.
HEP plants supply almost 50% of Sweden’s total energy mix and most are located on the big rivers in northern Sweden, above the Arctic Circle. 15 plants (including the giant Harsprånget plant) lie along the 460-kilometer-long Lule River in northern Sweden; they produce almost 10% of Swedish energy. Most are sited where waterfalls or rapids were found. The meltwater-fed river flows southeast from the glacial Sarek wilderness down to the town of Luleå where it discharges into the Gulf of Bothnia.
Previously glaciated valleys on the edge of active glacial areas near the Arctic circle are a perfect site for HEP generation for several reasons.
Their U-shaped profiles (a product of glacial ice erosion) favour dam construction. Previously glaciated areas may already contain deep ribbon lakes that can be dammed.
Low population densities are found in cold environments, especially in rural areas. This means that reservoirs can be created without the cost of relocating many people.
A large share of the runoff in rivers comes from ice melting. During summer, glacial melting helps maintain a substantial water flow even when precipitation is low.
Upland areas in cold environments are often made of resistant rock that provides firm foundations and prevents reservoir leakage.
Other physical features such as the steep drop of water from a hanging valley onto the valley floor below can provide energy to power turbines.
HEP is a form of renewable energy that does not lead to the emission of large amounts of harmful greenhouse gases. This is important for Facebook, which has been trying to clean up its act since the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace’s "How Dirty is Your Data?" report revealed in April 2011 that 53% of Facebook electricity was generated by coal.
Since then, the TNC has worked in partnership with the NGO to try and develop a more sustainable business model that includes greater use of renewables. "Facebook required a certificate verifying that the energy consumed by the facility primarily should come from renewable resources. Thanks to our main river Lule river, we can guarantee this," a Luleå spokesperson told the Guardian (27 October 2011).
The settlement of Luleå - whose economy used to depend on steel, pulp production and mining - has been working hard to rebrand itself as an educational and technology hub in recent decades. "Luleå has used its frigid climate as a selling point in its efforts to establish itself as a hub for server farms," notes the Daily Mail (28 October 2011).
The town is already home to 2,000 employees working in technology industries. Local players, such as Matz Engman (who heads local business confederation Luleå Näringsliv) have been working hard to bring new businesses to the region. It was, in fact, Engman who first approached Facebook, rather than vice-versa. "We knocked on doors at Facebook's head office (in Palo Alto, California) and today they're moving in to Luleå — this is huge, really huge," Engman has been reported as saying. He told the Financial Times (26 October 2011) that the positive outcome was the result of two years of lobbying.
Local players such as Engman hope to capitalise further on the establishment of Facebook’s new server farm. Their vision is for the town to become a major node for networked data traffic in Europe. They even have a new rebranding slogan for the Luleå region: "The Node Pole".
A recent press release reads as follows:
"The Node Pole region is being established to meet the future demands that cloud computing will put on data centre capacity. An increasing amount of data is moving from local servers and hard drives to the cloud. The massive amount of data in the cloud needs to be managed in huge data centres with excellent infrastructure for connectivity and computing.
"Luleå is one of Scandinavia’s leading ICT centers with Luleå University of Technology and the Aurorum Science Park, with the vision to become a world leader in high-tech, power-intensive industries. The location holds a combination of ideal inherent qualities for data storage. Besides having an extremely stable electricity infrastructure, the climate in Luleå provides natural cooling and renewable hydropower. The region is also one of the most geologically, politically and socially stable areas in the world. These qualities, the geographical position and the fact that the establishment of Facebook’s new data center will make the region a major node for data traffic in Europe, has generated a new epithet for the Luleå region – The Node Pole."
Additional information: Lulea facts
"That's really cool: Facebook puts your photos into the deep freeze as it unveils massive new five acre data center near Arctic circle" Daily Mail, 28 October 2011
"Facebook builds 'green' datacentre in Sweden" Guardian, 27 October 2011
Data Centre Knowledge
"Facebook to build European data site" Financial Times, 26 October 2011
"Facebook sets up data centre in Lapland, Sweden" BBC News, 27 October 2011
"Sweden's biggest hydroelectric plant going strong after 56 years" Reliable plant
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, Chief Examiner for IBO Diploma geography and teacher at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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