Last week Google revealed to the world its shipping container modular data centers that I was the first to write about almost four years ago. I was invited to the event and expected to be there until the parking brake on my 34-foot Winnebago motor home let loose on a slight slope during my trip to California. Though I jumped in the way trying to stop with superhuman strength the half-mile-per-hour collision with a 2000 Ford Excursion SUV, the crunch happened anyway and I was a day late and about $4000 short getting to Google.
There’s not much about the container strategy that I didn’t already write years ago. They use standard shipping containers fill them with 1000+ homebuilt servers cooled with both water and air. As countless stories pointed out last week the servers are standardized with two CPUs, two hard drives, and a backup battery that negates the need for a UPS or even power conditioning as far as I can tell.
It’s nice to be right about this stuff and nicer still if my first report is acknowledged, as the Register did and most other web sites didn’t, but what the heck. The far more interesting part of this story for me is how much Google is into server- and power-efficiency.
This efficiency measuring and calculating is based in part on maximizing Google profitability, but it goes far beyond that to an almost cult status at the search giant. Where the rest of the world just says “throw more hardware at it,” Google works to optimize every level of hardware and software to the point of even making code run better and in less memory specifically to save machines.
The power of this optimization ethos at Google can’t be over-estimated. Code is optimized not just for performance but also to use less CPU to reduce power consumption and heat generation. Every data center that has a plan and a clue optimizes for code speed or size, but only Google (as far as I know) optimizes also for power and heat. Google server code might run a bit slower but used less average CPU (keeping the CPU idle more and reducing power consumption).
At Google EVERY optimization matters. A one percent performance improvement could save the company thousands of servers and hundreds of thousands of dollars. This really matters not just in company expenses, but in environmental impact, too. Google is that rare place where writing “green code” is really encouraged.
But this is a delicate balancing act. Writing faster code saves servers. Writing code that uses less memory saves servers. The bottom line is these things really matter at Google where “throwing more hardware at it,” is not a common technique.
EVERYTHING matters. There was even an infamous Google white paper comparing the reliability and efficiency of Western Digital and Seagate hard drives. Think about it: if you are buying half a million drives even a 1-2 percent efficiency difference comes down to a lot of money.
It is surprising, then, that I’ve never heard from Google an expression of interest in the Antek Metal Foil Drive (MFD) I’ve been helping to develop for the last couple years. Why worry about comparing WD and Seagate with their 1-2 percent efficiency differential when an Antek MFD of the same capacity relies on a much thinner disk and a much smaller motor to use 85 PERCENT less energy for identical performance?
And there are good – or at least interesting – answers, too, that say plenty more about Google culture.
Google is very Do It Yourself. I’m surprised they haven’t built their own hard drives already. They have built other parts. But exactly for this reason Google would be skeptical of the Antek MFD. Even if the drive performance were verified they’d still have doubts about reliability.
Then there is the emotional component of a decision to even evaluate an Antek MFD. Like every other geeky company, Google thinks of itself as ruthlessly analytical yet is actually very emotional. Nerds hold positions often as not on what they BELIEVE as any other reason. They aren’t opposed to the scientific method, but aren’t above choosing not to use it if doing so makes them feel better.
That’s the way I believe Google is about the Antek MFD. Google is big and arrogant. Even more importantly, the gatekeeper in this area is Google VP Urs Hoelzle who doesn’t like me very much, even though I might just be the nicest guy in the world. Since I am associated with the Antek MFD and Urs doesn’t like me, Google has no interest in a clearly superior technology.
How geeky is that?