Google’s Competitive Advantage: Plumbing

May 31, 2008

Stephen Shankland wrote “Google Spotlights Data Center Inner Workings”, and I think it is a must-read article. The story appeared on May 30, 2008, and you can read the piece here. Google’s Jeff Dean, one of the engineers from search team, gave a talk at the Google I/O Conference.

Mr. Shankland’s article contains a number of juicy tidbits. The one that jumped out at me is:

Google likes multicore chips, those with many processing engines on each slice of silicon. Many software companies, accustomed to better performance from ever-faster chip clock speeds, are struggling to adapt to the multicore approach, but it suits Google just fine. The company already had to adapt its technology to an architecture that spanned thousands of computers, so they already have made the jump to parallelism. “We really, really like multicore machines,” Dean said. “To us, multicore machines look like lots of little machines with really good interconnects. They’re relatively easy for us to use.”

I don’t want to spoil the fun of learning from Mr. Shankland’s write up. Unlike most of the folks covering Google, he has the technical background to pay attention to details other than Google sells a lot of ads.

His article triggered several thoughts. These are:

  1. Next-generation computing is about scale. Google has the requisite engineering and infrastructure in place and up and running. The “sub half second response” is brutal evidence that Google’s Web search, video, and map applications don’t choke the as-is Google system. That’s not impressive; that’s a feat that none of Google’s competitors can match on cost and scale.
  2. Google has been chipping away at scaling for years. The fact that Google is revealing how it does a few whizzy things is a wake up call to its competitors. Google, a very secretive company, is now explaining what it does and how it does it. This means that Google is confident of its technical lead, and it is moving on to even more difficult challenges.
  3. Duplicating Google’s as-is infrastructure won’t help competitors narrow the gap between their data center technology and Google’s. Google is designing hardware and coding its own hardware and software. Catch Google’s present capabilities does one thing–you remain behind the GOOG.

The interesting question is, “What’s Google doing for Act II?” I think it is applications that run on the Googleplex, my term for this formidable as-is computing infrastructure. Each revelation about Google’s technology makes it next thrust more interesting. I’m glad I’m not Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, or Yahoo. Once I catch up with Google’s infrastructure, programming tools, and high-speed supercomputer, Googzilla has moved on. Good for Google shareholders. Bad for Google competitors who now have to leap frog the goodies ably described by Mr. Shankland.

An interesting exercise is to navigate to “The Business of IT” and peruse the list of Top 10 technologies according to high technology consultantancy, Gartner. You can find the list here. Google’s data centers seem to touch directly upon half of these important technologies.

Stephen Arnold, May 31, 2008


2 Responses to “Google’s Competitive Advantage: Plumbing”

  1. Joe Harris on June 2nd, 2008 4:24 am

    Hi Stephen,

    insightful as usual. How do you find time to write so many articles?

    Anyway, your article triggered a memory for me. A couple of years ago a technical account manager for Netezza told me that they have a huge Netezza rig at the Googleplex and they use it for a algorithm development.

    Have you ever heard a similar rumor or anything to corroborate this?


  2. Stephen E. Arnold on June 2nd, 2008 8:18 am

    Hi, Joe, as I have said in the past, I am recycling most of the information you find in this Web log. Material that won’t fit in my for fee studies or information that I prepared for a paid writing job finds its way here. Someone at SAS discovered the downside of this approach because I reported what the company thought was “old news”. Well, it was old news. That’s what’s in the Web log.

    With regards to other platforms at Google, I can only say that I have heard Google buys what it needs. The company has a range of gear, including the rig you mention, stuff from different vendors, and gear purchased to perform specific tests.

    Google, of course, won’t answer my questions, so I have no first-hand information. I gather little items about Google the way a squirrel picks up walnuts.

    I hope this helps.

    Stephen Arnold, June 2, 2008

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