Google: To build or to buy

What does Google's in-sourcing of system building tell us about the future of computing?

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
2 min read

Over at The Register, Ashlee Vance notes that "Sources have told Digitimes that Google plans to test out SSD [Solid State Disk] storage in an effort to lower power consumption at its vast data centers." He goes on to write that his sources dispute the report. ("Flat out wrong" to be exact.) It does strain credibility more than a tad given the current price premium of SSD over conventional hard disks--although it's certainly fair comment that it may get more interesting over time or that it may make sense for some particularly performance-sensitive part of the storage hierarchy. However, my point in bringing this up isn't to discuss the Google and SSD specifically.

Rather, Ashlee makes another point that is worth remembering and emphasizing when he writes:

Given the secretive nature of Google, it's rather hard for outsiders to tell what the company is up to. It's also damn hard to tell if the company's supposed data center magic really lives up to its billing or if the company just blows tons of cash and time designing its own systems.

Because the company is so prominent and successful, it's often tempting to point to Google as an exemplar and model for how computing will be done in a network-centric world. And, by extension, how the leading providers of this new-style computing will design, source, and operate their datacenters. There are certainly aspects of what Google does that are widely applicable. For example, no one disputes that software delivered in the form of services from scale-out infrastructures is (at the minimum) one of the major ways that people will consume computing.

It is important to at least consider the possibility that, when Google buys custom-designed motherboards from Intel, it's not providing some key insight into best practices for mega-service providers of the future. But, rather, it's just Google being Google.

This distinction matters. A lot. Google is heading down a path that is making it start to look like a vertically-integrated systems company from days of yore. (Think IBM mainframes.) If one furthermore assumes that "incredibly big" is the optimal scale point for such service providers (another important question), then isn't Google and its ilk the future of the systems company? (See this prior post for some more fleshing out of this thought.)

If, on the other hand, it's just Google burning $100 bills by the dump truck load because they've run out of space to paper the walls with them, that's a whole different animal with entirely different implications for system vendor and service provider strategy.

My guess? It's probably a bit of each. (No one said this industry was simple.)