Google Revealed: The IT Strategy That Makes It Work - InformationWeek

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8/25/2006
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Google Revealed: The IT Strategy That Makes It Work

A unique mix of internally developed software, open source, made-to-order hardware, and people management is the secret behind the search engine.

In Building 43 at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters is a video screen that depicts the world as seen in Google Earth. Across a revolving globe, streams of colorful pixels, like sparks from a Roman candle, mark the geographic origin of queries coming in to Google's search engine. It's a real-time representation of Google as the nexus of human curiosity.

Google is different. And it's different not only because its thinking is original and its applications unique--witness search queries morphed into a lobby display of bursting color--but because the company's unconventional IT strategy makes it so. Commodity hardware and free software hardly seem like the seeds of an empire, yet Google has turned them into an unmatched distributed computing platform that supports its wildly popular search engine, plus a burgeoning number of applications. We used to call them consumer applications, but Google changed that. Businesses also use them because, well, Google is different.

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The IT infrastructure behind Google's Web services doesn't matter much to the millions of people conducting searches, but it's everything to the hundreds of engineers dedicated to Google's mission of organizing the world's information and making it "universally accessible and useful." That calls for an IT plan that matches the company's business vision in scope and ambition.

Choice is always better than control, Douglas Merrill, VP of engineering, says.

Choice is always better than control, Merrill says.

Photo by Jeffery Newbury
Google managers tend to be reticent on the subject of IT strategy, they're loath to talk about specific vendors or products, and they clam up when asked about their servers and data centers. But a day spent with some of the company's IT leaders reveals there's more to Google's IT operations than a search engine running on a massive server farm. Behind the seeming simplicity is a mash-up of internally developed software, made-to-order hardware, artificial intelligence, obsession with performance, and an unorthodox approach to people management.

There's a lesson in Google's IT philosophy for other companies: Shun the herding instinct that leads toward the same systems and software everyone else is using. There may well be competitive advantages in doing things your own way.

"Culture drives the way you do things," says Douglas Merrill, VP of engineering and Google's de facto CIO. "To the extent, like us, your organizational culture is unusual in important ways, you will have to build different ways of running your traditional systems."


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Google's great IT advantage is its ability to build high-performance systems that are cost efficient (we didn't say cheap) and that scale to massive workloads. Because of that, IT consultant Stephen Arnold argues, Google enjoys huge cost advantages over competitors such as Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Google's programmers are 50% to 100% more productive than their peers at other Web companies, a result of the custom libraries Google developed to support programming of massively parallel systems, Arnold says. He estimates the company's competitors have to spend four times as much to keep up.

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