How Google Works: What CIOs Can Learn

By David F. Carr Print this article Print

For all the razzle-dazzle surrounding Google, the company must still work through common business problems such as reporting revenue and tracking projects. But it sometimes addresses those needs in unconventional—yet highly efficient—ways. Other

What Other CIOs Can Learn

While few organizations work on the scale of Google, CIOs can learn much from how the company deploys its technology and the clues it provides to the future of technology. Even if Google falters as a company, or competitors and imitators eventually take away its lead, the systems architecture it exemplifies will live on. "Google is a harbinger in the same way that in the early 1960s, a fully loaded IBM 1460 mainframe gave us a taste of more powerful computers to come," says Baseline columnist Paul A. Strassmann.

Strassmann, whose career includes senior information-technology management roles at government agencies including the Department of Defense, has been advising the military that it needs to become more like Google. This recommendation is partly inspired by his admiration for the company's skill at rapidly deploying computing power throughout the world as it's done the past few years. "Clearly, they have the largest [computer] network anywhere," he says.

Among other things, Google has developed the capability to rapidly deploy prefabricated data centers anywhere in the world by packing them into standard 20- or 40-foot shipping containers, Strassmann says. That's just the sort of capability an army on the move would like to have at its disposal to provide tactical support for battle or relief operations.

According to Strassmann, the idea of portable data centers has been kicking around the military for years, but today exists mostly as a collection of PowerPoint slides. And Google-like rapid access to information might be just what's needed in a war zone, where reports from the field too often pile up unread, he says. The military equivalent of Googling your competition would be for a field officer to spend a few seconds typing a query into a mobile device to get the latest intelligence about a hostile village before the troops move in. "It's Google skinned down into the hands of a Marine," he says.

Google's creation of the shipping container data centers was also reported in November by Triumph of the Nerds author Robert X. Cringely in his blog at Pbs.org. He describes it as a system of "5,000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig. [A petabyte is a quadrillion bytes, the next order of magnitude up from a terabyte, which is a trillion]. The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid." Google will not comment on these reports.

Greg Linden, one of the architects of Amazon.com's early systems, is fascinated by what Google has created but wary of the hype it sometimes attracts. "Google definitely has been influential, changing how many companies think about the computers that power their systems," says Linden, now CEO at Findory.com, a personalized news site he founded. "But it might be going a bit far to say they are leading a revolution by themselves."

Although Google's requirements might seem so exotic that few other organizations would need anything like its technology stack, Linden says he spoke with a hedge fund technology manager who said how much he would love to employ the distributed computing software behind Google's data centers to run data-intensive market simulations. And Linden says BigTable, Google's system for managing very large databases, sounds like something "I would have loved to have had at Amazon."

It is, however, something that Merrill can tap into at will. One of five engineering vice presidents, Merrill is Google's senior director of information systems—effectively, the CIO.

For some basic corporate functions like financial management, Merrill chooses the same kind of technologies you would find in any other corporate data center. On the other hand, Google doesn't hesitate to create applications for internal use and put them on its own server grid. If the company's software engineers think they can tinker up something to make themselves more productive—for example, a custom-built project tracking system—Merrill doesn't stand in their way.

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This article was originally published on 2006-07-06
David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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