[FoRK] Sismon on AKAM and GOOG's cpu cluster models

Rohit Khare rohit at ics.uci.edu
Mon Apr 26 14:16:08 PDT 2004

Leave it to Simson to figure out a new lede on an undercovered 
"comparable"... --RK


Google and Akamai: Cult of Secrecy vs. Kingdom of Openness
  The king of search is tapping into what may be the largest grid of 
computers on the planet. And it remains extraordinarily secretive about 
its core technologies—perhaps because it senses a potential competitor 
in dotcom era flameout Akamai.

By Simson Garfinkel
April 21, 2004

 “You should never trust this number,” said Martin Farach-Colton, a 
professor of computer science at Rutgers University, speaking a little 
more than a year ago. “People make a big deal about it, and it’s not 

Farach-Colton was giving a public lecture about his two-year sabbatical 
working at Google. The number that he was disparaging was in the middle 
of his PowerPoint slide:
	• 	 150 million queries/day

The next slide had a few more numbers:
	• 	 1,000 queries/sec (peak)
	• 	 10,000+ servers
	• 	 More than 4 tera-ops/sec at daily peak
	• 	 Index: 3 billion Web pages 
	• 	 4 billion total docs
	• 	 4+ petabytes disk storage

A few people in the audience started to giggle: the Google figures 
didn't add up.

I started running the numbers myself. Let's see: “4 tera-ops/sec” means 
4,000 billion operations per second; a top-of-the-line server can do 
perhaps two billion operations per second, so that translates to 
perhaps 2,000 servers—not 10,000. Four petabytes is 4x1015 bytes of 
storage; spread that over 10,000 servers and you'd have 400 gigabytes 
per server, which again seems wrong, since Farach-Colton had previously 
said that Google puts two 80-gigabyte hard drives into each server.

And then there is that issue of 150 million queries per day. If the 
system is handling a peak load of 1,000 queries per second, that 
translates to a peak rate of 86.4 million queries per day—or perhaps 40 
million queries per day if you assume that the system spends only half 
its time at peak capacity. No matter how you crank the math, Google's 
statistics are not self-consistent.

  “These numbers are all crazily low,” Farach-Colton continued. “Google 
always reports much, much lower numbers than are true."

  Whenever somebody from Google puts together a new presentation, he 
explained, the PR department vets the talk and hacks down the numbers. 
Originally, he said, the slide with the numbers said that 1,000 
queries/sec was the “minimum” rate, not the peak. “We have 10,000-plus 
servers. That’s plus a lot.”

Just as Google’s search engine comes back instantly and seemingly 
effortlessly with a response to any query that you throw it, hiding the 
true difficulty of the task from users, the company also wants its 
competitors kept in the dark about the difficulty of the problem. After 
all, if Google publicized how many pages it has indexed and how many 
computers it has in its data centers around the world, search 
competitors like Yahoo!, Teoma, and Mooter would know how much capital 
they had to raise in order to have a hope of displacing the king at the 
top of the hill.

Google has at times had a hard time keeping its story straight. When 
vice president of engineering Urs Hoelzle gave a talk about Google’s 
Linux clusters at the University of Washington in November of 2002, he 
repeated that figure of 1,000 queries per second—but he said that the 
measure was made at 2:00 a.m. on December 25, 2001. His point, obvious 
to everybody in the room, is that even by November 2002, Google was 
doing a lot more than 1,000 queries per second—just how many more, 
though, was anybody’s guess.

  The facts may be seeping out. Last Thanksgiving, the New York Times 
reported that Google had crossed the 100,000-server mark. If true, that 
means Google is operating perhaps the largest grid of computers on the 
planet. “The simple fact that they can build and operate data centers 
of that size is astounding,” says Peter Christy, co-founder of the 
NetsEdge Research Group, a market research and strategy firm in Silicon 
Valley. Christy, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years, 
is astounded by the scale of Google’s systems and the company’s 
competence in operating them. “I don’t think that there is anyone 

It’s this ability to build and operate incredibly dense clusters that 
is as much as anything else the secret of Google’s success. And the 
reason, explains Marissa Mayer, the company’s director of consumer Web 
products, has to do with the way that Google started at Stanford.

  Instead of getting a few fast computers and running them to the max, 
Mayer explained at a recruiting event at MIT, founders Sergey Brin and 
Larry Page had to make do with hand-me-downs from Stanford’s computer 
science department. They would go to the loading dock to see who was 
getting new computers, then ask if they could have the old, obsolete 
machines that the new ones were replacing. Thus, from the very 
beginning, Brin and Page were forced to develop distributed algorithms 
that ran on a network of not-very-reliable machines.

Today this philosophy is built into the company’s DNA. Google buys the 
cheapest computers that it can find and crams them in racks and racks 
in its six (or more) data centers. “PCs are reasonably reliable, but if 
you have a thousand of them, one is going to fail every day,” said 
Hoelzle. “So if you can just buy 10 percent extra, it’s still cheaper 
than buying a more reliable machine.”

Working at Google, an engineer told me recently, is the nearest you can 
get to having an unlimited amount of computing power at your disposal.

The Kingdom of Openness

There is another company that has perfected the art of running massive 
numbers of computers with a comparatively tiny staff. That company is 

  Akamai isn’t a household word now, but it did make the front pages 
when the company went public in November 1999 with what was, at the 
time, the fourth most successful initial public offering in history. 
Akamai’s stock soared and made billionaires of its founders. In the 
years that followed, however, Akamai has fallen on hard times. It 
wasn’t just the dot-com crash that caused significant layoffs and the 
abandonment of the company’s California offices: Akamai’s cofounder and 
chief technology officer Danny Lewin was aboard American Airlines 
Flight 11 on September 11 and was killed when the plane was flown into 
the World Trade Center. Company morale was devastated.

  Akamai’s network operates on the same complexity scale as Google’s. 
Although Akamai has only 14,000 machines, those servers are located in 
2,500 different locations scattered around the globe. The servers are 
used by companies like CNN and Microsoft to deliver Web pages. Just as 
Google’s servers are used by practically everyone on the Internet 
today, so are Akamai’s.

  Because of their scale, both Akamai and Google have had to develop 
tools and techniques for managing these machines, debugging performance 
problems, and handling errors. This isn’t software that a company can 
buy off the shelf—they require laborious in-house development. It is, 
in fact, software that is one of Akamai's key competitive advantages.

  Yes, a few other organizations are also running large clusters of 
computers. Both NASA's Ames Research Center and Virginia Tech have 
large clusters devoted to scientific computing. But there are key 
differences between these systems and the clusters that both Google and 
Akamai have created. The scientific systems are located in a single 
place, not spread all over the world. They are generally not directly 
exposed to the Internet. And perhaps most importantly, the scientific 
systems are not providing a commodity service to hundreds of millions 
of Internet users every day: Google and Akamai must deliver 100 percent 
uptime. It’s easy to go out and buy 10,000 computers—all you need is 
cash. It’s much harder to make those computers all work together as a 
single service that supports millions of simultaneous users.

  To be fair, there are important differences between Google and 
Akamai—differences that assure that Google won’t be breaking into 
Akamai’s business anytime soon, nor Akamai moving into Google’s. Both 
companies have developed infrastructure for running massively parallel 
systems, but the applications that they are running on top of those 
systems are different. Google’s primary application is a search engine. 
Akamai, by contrast, has developed a system for delivering Web pages, 
streaming media, and a variety of other standard Internet protocols.

  Another important difference, says Christy, “is that Akamai has had a 
very hard time creating a clear business model that works, whereas 
Google has been unbelievably successful.” Akamai has thus started 
looking for new ways that it can sell services that only a massive 
distributed network can deliver. Struggling for profitability, the 
company has been aggressively looking for new opportunities for its 
technology. This might be the reason that Akamai, unlike Google, was 
willing to be interviewed for this article.

“We started with basic bit delivery—objects, photos, banners, ads," 
says Tom Leighton, Akamai’s chief scientist. "We do it locally. Make it 
fast. Make it reliable. Make the sites better.”

  Now Akamai is developing techniques for letting customers run their 
applications directly on the company's distributed servers. Leighton 
says that 25 of Akamai’s largest customers have done this. The system 
can handle sudden surges, making it ideal for cases where it is 
impossible to anticipate demand.

  For example, says Leighton, Akamai’s network was used to handle a 
keyboard giveaway contest sponsored by Logitech. Thinking that its 
contest might be popular, Logitech created an elaborate series of 
rules, assuring that only so many keyboards would be given away to 
every state and within any given time period. But Logitech grossly 
underestimated how many people would click in to the contest. In the 
past, such underestimates have caused highly publicized Internet events 
like the Victoria’s Secret webcast to crash, frustrating millions of 
Web surfers and embarrassing the company. But not this time: Logitech’s 
contest ran on the Akamai network without a hitch.

Of course, Logitech could have tried to build the system itself. It 
could have designed and tested a server capable of handling 100 
simultaneous users. That server might cost $5,000. Then Logitech could 
have bought 20 of those servers for $100,000 and put them in a data 
center. But a single data center could get congested, so it might make 
more sense to put 10 of them in one data center on the East Coast and 
10 in another data center on the West Coast. Still, that system could 
only handle 2,000 simultaneous users: it might be better to buy 100 
servers, for a total cost of $500,000, and put them at 10 different 
data centers. But even if they had done this, the engineers at Logitech 
would have had no way of knowing if the system would actually have 
worked when it was put to the test—and they would have invested a huge 
amount of money in engineering that wouldn’t have been needed after the 

And contests aren’t the only thing that can run on Akamai’s network. 
Practically any program written in the Java programming language can 
run on the company’s infrastructure. The system can handle mortgage 
applications, catalogs, and electronic shopping carts. Akamai even runs 
the backend for Apple’s iTunes 99-cent music service.

  Perhaps because Akamai is so proud of the system that it has built, 
the company is very open about the network's technical details. Its 
network operations center in Cambridge, MA, has a glass wall allowing 
visitors to see a big screen with statistics. When I visited the 
company in January, the screen said that Akamai was serving 591,763 
hits per second, with 14,372 CPUs online, 14,563 gigahertz of total 
processing power, and 650 terabytes of total storage. On April 14, the 
number had jumped to a peak rate of 900,000 hits per second and 43.71 
billion requests delivered in a 24-hour period. (Akamai wouldn’t 
disclose the number of CPUs online because that number is part of its 
quarterly earnings report, to be released on April 28. “But it hasn’t 
changed much,” the company’s spokesperson told me.)

Mail and Scale

Looking forward, a few business opportunities have obvious appeal to 
both Google and Akamai. For example, both companies could take their 
experience in building large-scale distributed clusters to create a 
massive backup system for small businesses and home PC users. Or they 
could take over management of home PCs, turning them into smart 
terminals running applications on remote servers. This would let PC 
users escape the drudgery of administering their own machines, 
installing new applications, and keeping anti-virus programs up to 

And then there is e-mail. Back on April 1, Google announced that it was 
going to enter the consumer e-mail business with an unorthodox press 
release: "Search is Number Two Online Activity—Email is Number One: 
'Heck, Yeah,' Say Google Founders."

  Since then, Google has received considerable publicity for the 
announced design of its Gmail (Google Mail) offering. The free service 
promises consumers one gigabyte of mail storage (more than a hundred 
times the storage offered by other Web mail providers), astounding 
search through mail archives, and the promise that consumers will never 
need to delete an e-mail message again. At first many people thought 
that the announcement was an April Fools joke—a gigabyte per user just 
seemed like too much storage. But since the vast majority of users 
won’t use that much storage, what Google’s promise really says is that 
Google can buy new hard drives faster than the Internet’s users can 
fill them up. [Editor's note: Google’s proposal to fund Gmail by 
showing advertisements based on the content of users' e-mail has 
received significant criticism from a variety of privacy activists. 
Earlier this month a number of privacy activists circulated a letter 
asking Google to not launch Gmail until these privacy issues had been 
resolved. Simson Garfinkel signed that letter as a supporter after this 
article was written but before its publication.]

Google’s infrastructure seems well-suited to the deployment of a 
service like Gmail. Last summer Google published a technical paper 
called The Google File System (GFS), which is apparently the underlying 
technology developed by Google for allowing high-speed replication and 
access of data throughout its clusters. With GFS, each user’s e-mail 
could be replicated between several different Google clusters; when 
users log into Gmail their Web browser could automatically be directed 
to the closest cluster that had a copy of their messages.

  This is hard technology to get right—and exactly the kind of system 
that Akamai has been developing for the past six years. In fact, 
there’s no reason, in principle, why Akamai couldn't deploy a similar 
large-scale e-mail system fairly easily on its own servers. No reason, 
that is, except for the company’s philosophy.

Leighton doesn’t think that Akamai would move into any business that 
required the company to deal directly with end users. More likely, he 
says, Akamai would provide the infrastructure to some other company 
that would be in a position to do the billing, customer support, and 
marketing to end users. “Our focus is selling into the enterprise,” he 

George Hamilton, an analyst at the Yankee Group who covers enterprise 
computing and networking, agrees. Hamilton calls the idea of Google 
competing with Akamai “far-fetched.” But Google could hire Akamai to 
supplement Google’s technology needs, he says.

Still, such a partnership seems unlikely—at least on the surface. 
Google might buy Akamai, the way the company bought Pyra Labs in 
February 2003 to acquire Pyra's Blogger personal Web publishing system. 
But Akamai, with its culture of openness, doesn’t seem like a good 
match to secretive Google’s. Then there is the fact that 20 percent of 
Akamai’s revenue now comes directly from Microsoft, according to 
Akamai's November 2003 quarterly report. Google’s rivalry with 
Microsoft in Internet search (and now in e-mail) has been widely 
commented upon in the press; it is unlikely that the company would want 
to work so closely with such a close Microsoft partner.

Ted Schadler, a vice president at the market research firm Forrester, 
says that it’s possible to envision the two companies competing because 
they are both going after the same opportunity in massive, distributed 
computing. “In that sense, they have the same vision. They have to 
build out a lot of the same technology because it doesn’t exist. They 
are having to learn lots of the same lessons and develop lots of the 
same technologies and business models.”

Schadler says Akamai and Google are both examples of what he calls 
“programmable Internet business channels.” These channels are companies 
that offer large infrastructure that can offer high quality services on 
the Internet to hundreds of millions of users at the flick of a switch. 
Google and Akamai are such companies, but so are Amazon.com, eBay and 
even Yahoo!. “They are all services that enable business 
activity—foundation services that [can be] scaled securely,” Schadler 

“If I were a betting man,” Schadler adds, “I would say that Google is 
much more interested in serving the customer and Akamai is more 
interested in provide the infrastructure—it’s retail versus wholesale. 
There will be lots and lots of these retail-oriented services.”

If true, Google might suddenly find itself competing with a company 
that, like Google itself, seemed to come out of nowhere. Except this 
time, that company wouldn’t have to figure out any of the tricks of 
running the massive infrastructure itself.

And that explains why Google is so secretive.

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