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.

Pimp My Server

How does Google do it? For one thing, Merrill says, "we build hardware." Google doesn't manufacture computer systems, but it does order them to its own specifications, then installs and tunes them like something out of MTV's Pimp My Ride. "What it comes down to is we're very good at buying commodity servers and using them to their fullest, to the point where they're almost so damn hot they'll melt," open source program manager Chris DiBona says.

That hands-on approach, born of the frugality of a garage startup, persists because Google's scale demands it. Google has between 200,000 and 450,000 servers spread among up to 65 data centers, depending on how you define them and who's doing the counting. And those numbers continue to rise.

The company won't discuss these estimates; it considers such numbers to be a competitive advantage. In fact, one of the things Google likes about open source software is that it facilitates secrecy. "If we had to go and buy software licenses, or code licenses, based on seats, people would absolutely know what the Google infrastructure looks like," DiBona says. "The use of open source software, that's one more way we can control our destiny."

Scale works in Google's favor. The marginal advantage of custom-built servers becomes significant when multiplied by hundreds of thousands of machines. The company is constructing a 30-acre data center along the Columbia River in The Dalles, Ore., where it can get low-priced hydroelectric power for computing and cooling (see story, "Google Goes Its Own Way In The Data Center").


Open source software lets Google control its own destiny, DiBona says.

Open source software lets Google control its own destiny, DiBona says.
Google organizes its machines, which run Linux, into "cells," which DiBona describes as a kind of disk drive for Internet services. (Not to be confused with Gdrive, the long-rumored Google hosted storage service. "There is no Gdrive," a spokeswoman insists.) Software programs reside on racks of inexpensive computers, and programmers decide how much redundancy to give them. The cells take the place of commercial storage equipment; DiBona says Google's cells are cheaper to create and maintain, and he hints they can handle more data, too.

No level of minutiae escapes Google's attention. For years, the company's engineers have studied the inner workings of microprocessors, and as Google continues to scale up, chips tuned to its unique needs could become a necessity. In a paper published in an industry journal last year, distinguished engineer Luiz Barroso said key workloads at Google suffered from single-core designs in recent years. Many server-side apps, such as serving the Google search index, don't process in parallel well at the instruction level on such chips.

The arrival of more chip-level parallelism as Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, and Sun Microsystems build multiple cores onto their chips has been a boon, says Barroso, a former chip designer at Digital Equipment and Compaq.

Google has even considered designing its own computer chips, but such a bold move may be unnecessary given industry trends. "Designing a microprocessor is a complex and costly task," says Urs Holzle, senior VP of operations. Google prefers to work with chip manufacturers to make sure they understand its applications and design chips that are a good fit. It's been advocating designs that focus on aggregate throughput and performance per watt rather than single-thread peak performance. "Recent trends in multicore CPUs very much follow that direction," says Holzle.

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