Facebook and Eagle Mountain: Five Questions for William Marks
A new EDCUtah investor and a past corporate expansion project, Facebook is building a data center campus in Eagle Mountain, Utah. We caught up with William Marks, Facebook’s Community Development Manager in Utah, to ask about project progress, sustainability and solar, and the company’s COVID-19 response.
How has user traffic on Facebook been since the COVID-19 crisis arose?
WM: Just, wow. For the first time ever, there are more than 3 billion people actively using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger around the world each month. That includes 2.6 billion people using Facebook alone, and more than 2.3 billion people using at least one of our services every single day. The reason we can handle this immense amount of traffic is thanks to our data centers, just like what’s being built in Eagle Mountain. There are only 16 Facebook data centers operating or being built in the entire world, so having one here in Utah is pretty special for us.
We’ve definitely seen a shift in how people are using our platforms during the pandemic. In many places hardest hit by COVID, messaging volume has increased more than 50%, and voice and video calling have more than doubled across Messenger and WhatsApp. Live video has also taken off. Before the pandemic, livestreaming was primarily used for in-person events. Since almost no one is planning physical events right now, livestreaming has become the primary venue for millions of virtual events (even the Pope livestreamed his weekly mass on Facebook Live). Every day, more than 800 million users are engaging with livestreams for things like workout classes, dance parties and concerts. We want to help people and small businesses that previously relied on in-person services create and monetize online events.
Can you give us an update on operations and construction at the Eagle Mountain site?
Everything is moving along smoothly, and we expect live data center operations will start sometime in 2021. We are currently working on three buildings in Eagle Mountain that total more than 1.5 million square feet. To put that in construction metrics, 50,000 yards of structural concrete, 8,000 tons of steel, and 2 million hours of work have already gone into the whole project. For a size comparison, just one data center building is the size of a modern-day aircraft carrier—nearly four football fields long.
Mortenson Construction is our general contractor, and we’re working with a number of local subcontractors like RK Mechanical, Big-D, Ames Construction, and Sure Steel from South Weber. We typically have 1,100 to 1,250 construction workers on site daily. Together the three-building project will add about $1 billion to the local economy.
What are some of the sustainability aspects of the project?
We’re proud to say our data centers are some of the most efficient data center facilities in the world. They use 80% less water than the average data center and are supported by 100% renewable energy. (Eagle Mountain will be supported by 100% solar energy.) We are very transparent about our energy use and sustainability efforts through our own reporting, available at sustainability.fb.com.
About 10 years ago, Facebook was growing so fast that the old way of building and operating data centers wouldn’t work. Off-the-shelf servers included too much excess stuff we didn’t need, and the buildings weren’t efficient. Excess heat was an issue and they just weren’t very energy efficient. If you’ve ever heard stories of people building data centers in the North Pole … that’s why. So Facebook designed a data center building and servers that would be so energy efficient we could build them in different climates, even hot ones, without needing air conditioning to cool the servers.
This design saved so much energy that we knew we had to share it with others, so we gave away the plans. You can see them right now on the Open Compute Project (OCP) website. We helped launch the OCP to elevate efficient computing technology and share the best solutions publicly so that we could all innovate faster.
We are also proud to support environmental projects in our data center communities. My favorite project in Utah is our new partnership with Trout Unlimited, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of the Interior to increase stream flows in the lower Provo River. It’s a 10-year project to improve fishing and wildlife management and to provide more recreational activities. We help to fund it, and the experts manage it. (More info here.)
Facebook has also made some local donations related to the COVID-19 crisis. Can you give us an update on the donations to the Alpine School District?
This pandemic has been incredibly challenging for both students and educators, so we’re proud to have partnered with the Alpine School District to donate $582,000 in support of their remote learning curriculum. It’s been awesome to work with the Alpine School District and their foundation. They are very organized, and this effort was only successful because of their hard work.
A lot of the funding is being used for laptops that students can take home. Think about a family with three or four kids, but only one or two computers available for parents to do work and kids to use for school. You can see the problem there. The schools identified the families that needed help and are sourcing more than 1,000 devices for families in the district.
The second part of the funding we put toward helping teachers. We got them video equipment—in essence a smart camera that can follow them if they move around while giving an online lesson. We also provided iPads that can record sessions for students to replay. Think about a math problem … the teacher writes down the equation and solves it, and the iPad captures and saves all the steps. The students can work through the problem, and then watch how the teacher solves it and replay it as many times as necessary. This gear helps teachers create content thatstudents can view and work through remotely.
We also helped the school district fund robotics programs, elementary school STEM nights, multimedia workshops and National Science Bowl competitions. It’s the most rewarding part of my job.
Facebook also funded an economic grant program. How many businesses took you up on the Small Business Grants program in Utah County?
We have another great partner in the Eagle Mountain Chamber of Commerce. They just signed up their 100thmember, which is amazing for a small city.
We had two types of business grants. One was focused around Eagle Mountain proper, and 43 businesses were awarded a total of $200,000 in cash grants that ranged from $1,000 to $10,000. This included grants to sole proprietors and home businesses, and the Chamber managed the application and award process.
The second program was open to all businesses in Utah County that have at least two employees and could demonstrate a negative impact from COVID-19. We are awarding a total of $100,000 very soon. The grants are worth $4,000, and consist of $2,500 in cash and $1,500 in online ad credits.
These grants to businesses are part of a $100 million worldwide small business fund, and when you add it all up we committed over $300 million this year to help communities during the crisis, including an additional $100 million to support local news organizations.
In addition to COVID relief, we’re now adding $100 million to support Black-owned small businesses and nonprofitsnationally. This program is rolling out now. I’ve already had talks with the local chapter of the NAACP and Utah’s Black Chamber of Commerce, and I’m excited for the great things to come. I appreciate EDCUtah’s help in making some of those community connections. More information will be available at facebook.com/EagleMountainDataCenter/.
Bonus question: How about a human interest angle? What’s a good story that epitomizes Facebook’s response to the COVID crisis?
A story I like is that some of the Eagle Mountain construction workers were driving to work, and heard on the radio that small businesses were hurting and health-care workers were working overtime. The radio program talked about how you could purchase a meal from a local restaurant, and that meal would go to a health-care worker. A win-win.
A construction worker called me and said they didn’t want to buy just one or two meals…they wanted to buy hundreds. We all pooled our money together and made this happen. This wasn’t a corporate Facebook effort—this was just our people hearing it on the radio and wanting to do good for the community.
And you may remember some really bad fires in Utah County this summer. Fortunately, the Mortenson Construction team was paying attention and immediately allowed firefighting helicopters to scoop water from their construction water source and dump it on the fires to help extinguish them more quickly. I loved seeing that immediate action and great coordination with local firefighters.