The social network will be releasing the new hard drive design in May, as a part of its Open Compute Project.

We wrote a blog post a few months ago about third-party server makers stripping down hardware to the bare minimum to increase server performance. Facebook is a big player in minimal server design, since the company is heading up the Open Compute Project, and putting out its minimalist server designs for free to the public. Facebook didn’t stop with barebones servers though. The world’s largest social network is also designing new storage hardware to better handle all of the user data uploaded to its servers everyday.

Facebook has over 845 million users. That’s a lot of uploaded pictures, videos, and wall posts. The last estimation was that Facebook handles over 140 billion pictures from its user base. Just like Google and Amazon, Facebook recognized that the company needed specialized hardware to become more efficient at hosting data.

In some ways, the company has already begun doing that (for instance, the new and improved server design that we already covered). Also, Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon has been specifically tailored for an online company that has to support hundreds of millions of users. Common data center implementations are electric chillers and uninterruptible power supplies. Facebook found these inefficient and decided to tackle the data center problems of cooling and power supplies in new ways. After its one-of-a-kind customization, the company found the data center’s power consumption had greatly decreased and made those components easier to repair and less expensive to build. Facebook now wants do apply the same design principles to storage hardware.

Heading the effort is Facebook’s Frank Frankovsky, an ex-Dell employee who knows his way around a hard drive. He and his team took a hard look at what was really the most basic (and necessary) aspect of a hard drive, and resolved to come up with a design that kept only that most basic functionality. Frankovsky said “The really valuable part of storage is the disk drive itself and the software that controls how the data gets distributed to and recovered from those drives.” Anything that doesn’t help the drive do that is gravy. Again, the results will be a more easily repaired drive. Facebook is hoping that this new design and implementation will also make it easier for technicians to find a troubled drive and fix or replace it faster than ever.

To further the company’s Open Compute Project, it does intend to release its hard drive designs for others to use. The goal of the project is that if all data centers implement these reduced hardware designs that power consumption of data centers in general will go down, and will be more environmentally friendly overall. And of course, servers and hard drives that require less parts will also hopefully cost less money, in the long run.

There was a lot of speculation when Facebook first announced its Open Compute Project. Critics thought it was just a PR stunt and that the social network would let the endeavor stagnate. The last laugh will probably belong to Facebook though, as big name companies are beginning to take an interest in lowering costs and environmental impact of their products and data centers. Big names, like Apple, have already begun to consider using the open source designs from the Open Compute Project. Hopefully this push in a more environmentally conscious direction will change the minds of server sellers who usually dismiss the idea of having to customize servers, since it would interrupt their assembly line production (and cost them more money).

All this hype now is generating excitement, but Facebook won’t actually be releasing their specialized storage hardware until May. The official announcement of the new storage device design will happen at the company’s Open Compute Summit, also in May. Other big wigs at the summit will include Dell, Netflix, Intel, Asus, and more. In fall of last year, Facebook unveiled a not-for-profit venture tied into the Open Compute Project. The gathering is gaining steam as a major technology event.

Keeping in the vein of environmentally conscious data centers, Apple just announced a solar powered data center; to read more about it, click the link and read the blog post.