Welcome To Prineville
Your latest Facebook status update may very well be sitting in Prineville, Oregon, a rural town of about 10,000 people on the Central Oregon high desert. Three years ago, Facebook chose this location, of all places, to build its first wholly owned and custom-designed data center. That decision launched the economic revival of an old logging and ranching community around an industry that no one here had even heard of a few years ago: the physical storage of digital data.
The Logging Industry
Since the 1800s, Prineville’s economy has largely rested on the natural resources of this scenic part of the state in between the Cascade Mountains and the Ochoco National Forest. Local businesses produced wood products, such as the window and door moldings found in many homes. When the housing industry collapsed, Prineville’s economy was particularly devastated. And to make matters worse, the town’s other large employer--Les Schwab tires--relocated its headquarters to the nearby and larger city of Bend in 2008. At the height of the recession, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Prineville was as high as 22 percent, with few prospects for creating new jobs in the old industries that had sustained this community for decades.
The High Desert
Prineville’s greatest advantage going into the 21st century, however, has remained its natural assets: its moderate desert climate, sunny weather, and ample land.
The High Desert
Today Prineville’s geography effectively divides it in two, with visitors from the west passing over a high plateau (in the background here) before dropping down into the main town below. In the 90s, Prineville leaders realized they could develop industry on that plateau – “up on the grade,” locals say – at a comfortable distance from the rest of the community. Les Schwab built a new warehouse up there, and utilities followed: power, water, sewer, and eventually fiber-optic cable. Data centers, meanwhile, happen to require above all else 1) access to reliable, affordable power, and 2) cheap land in large quantities. A typical data center, which stores rows and rows of server racks, sits on at least 100 acres of land. As an added bonus, Prineville’s dry climate offered the promise of constructing energy-efficient data centers that would require less power to cool.
Prineville County Courthouse
Facebook began poking around town here long before anyone knew the true identity of the company. “They had a code name,” recalls Bill Gowen, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, “which was not very revealing at all.” A site-selection contractor made the initial contact with Prineville officials in early 2009. Both parties, sworn to stay mum under a confidentiality agreement, publicly referred to talks with the town’s new potential employer, “Vitesse LLC.” Facebook’s first public documents with the city and county were filed under that name. “When dealing with a lot of these economic development projects, there’s no guarantee it’s going to happen, and you don’t want to put the community in the position of getting its hopes up, especially in a community like ours where we’ve had high unemployment and job losses,” says Jason Carr, Prineville’s economic development manager. “The reality in economic development is that your chances of recruiting a company like Facebook or Apple are extremely small.”
Prineville Facebook Data Center
The rest of the city didn’t find out Vitesse’s real identity until the January morning in 2010 when Facebook broke ground on the data center. To help lure the company, Prineville tapped into a state-based tax-incentive program called an enterprise zone. For its first 15 years in town, Facebook has to pay taxes only on the land it owns here--120 acres of it--and not on the value of the buildings on it or the equipment in them. In exchange, Facebook had to promise to create at least 35 full-time jobs paying more than 150% of the local median income.
Prineville Facebook Data Center
Since the groundbeaking, 1,800 construction workers have come through the site, which now has 60 permanent employees. Facebook is also now expanding into the construction of a second data center on the Prineville property (to go with similar data centers it has since planned or constructed in North Carolina and Sweden). The local jobs range from low- to high-skilled, maintaining the grounds of the data center, servicing its server racks, managing the facility and even securing it. (The security of data centers is a serious industry in its own right.) Smaller electrical supply and support companies have also begun to spring up around town, in much the same way that logging once created its own economic ecosystem. Today, electrical wires are Prineville’s new lumber.
Server Racks
The primary data center, which was designed by the Chicago-based architecture firm Sheehan Partners, is built around a 164,000-square-foot computer equipment room. On top of it sits a 100,000-square-foot mechanical equipment penthouse.
The LEED Gold-certified facility also has 23,000 square feet of office space surrounding an interior courtyard.
The Cooling Penthouse
As part of its Open Compute Project, Facebook has shared the design of this facility with the rest of the industry. Facebook custom-designed its own power supply, server racks and battery backup systems for the Prineville site, and as a result the company says it requires 38% less energy and 24% less money to do the same work in Prineville that it does at its existing facilities. Because of the Open Compute Project, this facility also regularly hosts visiting engineers and executives from other tech companies – all of whom get introduced to Prineville as well.
The View from Prineville’s new Data Center Plateau
Earlier this year, a second tech behemoth announced that it would build a data center in Prineville, too. Apple bought 160 acres of land, for $5.6 million, right across the highway from Facebook (Apple was given the same tax-incentive package as Facebook). Carr, the economic development manager, can’t say for certain if Apple came to town because Facebook did. But it’s hard to imagine otherwise. “When a major company makes a decision to relocate or expand somewhere,” Carr says, “everyone in that industry kind of looks around and says to themselves, ‘OK, why is Facebook in Prineville?’”
Facebook Prineville Data Center
With a second such enviable new employer coming to town, Prineville now has not just a new company, but a new industry. And it’s the first new industry to develop here since Les Schwab started up in the 1950s. “There had been maybe smaller, other companies, but no substantial industry that was really a game-changer in the economy,” Carr says. “It’s brought a level of excitement and optimism that we really needed at one of the lowest economic points in our county’s history.” Carr sounds confident that these Apple and Facebook facilities won’t be the only data centers in the town’s future. Although, of course, if he were in secret talks with anyone else, he wouldn’t be able to tell us about it.
Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new FastCompany.com?

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Discover The Oregon Logging Town Where Your Facebook Status Lives

Using a fake company name, Facebook stealthily launched a plan to build its first wholly owned, custom-designed green data center three years ago in the rural town of 10,000 on the Central Oregon high desert. Now Apple's sniffing around, too.

Add New Comment