November 12, 2010 4:03 pm

Facebook builds data centre ahead of expansion drive

Facebook is to invest $450m in a new data centre facility in North Carolina as the social networking site seeks to offer quicker download times than rivals and explores offering new services.

The move comes amid intense speculation online that Facebook will unveil a new messaging or e-mail system next week.

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More than 500m people use Facebook, half of them every day, posting billions of photographs, videos and messages. Such activity creates huge demand for computing power, which Facebook is looking to serve itself, rather than relying on third-party hosting providers.

It is following Google’s strategy of building its own bespoke servers and data centres, which it sees as giving it a competitive advantage in page-loading speed and providing new services.

Twitter, Facebook’s closest rival in social media, announced it would move to its first custom-built data centre in Salt Lake City in July, after struggling with performance issues as it grew. Apple is also constructing a vast server farm in the US.

Facebook’s data centre in Forest City, Rutherford County will be its second, after it opened a facility in Virginia in 2008.

“The team we will hire here will help us provide faster, more reliable and more robust service to people around the world who rely on Facebook to connect and share,” said Tom Furlong, director of site operations for Facebook.

North Carolina has been offering incentives to companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple to build hosting facilities in the state.

“We are proud that Facebook chose to make North Carolina a friend,” said the state’s Governor, Bev Perdue.

Facebook said it would use “innovative cooling and power management technologies to make the facility one of the most energy efficient data centres in the United States”.

Improvements in software efficiency mean Facebook needs less than half the computing power and energy consumption to power its data centre that it would have done a few years ago, the site added.

As well as new infrastructure, Facebook continues to introduce new features to its site at a rapid pace, to fend off competition from sites such as Google and Twitter. It introduced a local deals service last week and new groups and privacy features last month.

After inviting press to a launch event in California this coming Monday, the blogosphere has been alive with chatter that Facebook will launch a new e-mail system.

Its existing messaging system can only be used to send messages between Facebook users, and offers limited features compared to Yahoo Mail, Microsoft’s Hotmail and Google’s Gmail.

Techcrunch, AOL’s technology blog, reported that this “Project Titan” could introduce “@facebook.com” e-mail addresses and highlight messages from close friends, using Facebook’s knowledge of personal relationships.

Facebook declined to comment on the reports.

Amid an intensifying rivalry between Google and Facebook, the search company blocked Gmail users from importing their contacts book into the social network.

Google said the move was prompted by Facebook’s failure to provide a reciprocal service.

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