April 7, 2015
“Let me tell you about the rich. They are different than you and me”.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve always believed that Fitzgerald’s assessment of the divide between the wealthy and the rest of us to be, perhaps, the most accurate bit of social commentary ever written. In just two short sentences, he illustrates that the worlds of the well-off, and those who aspire to be them, move in completely different orbits. Isn’t this kind of like the differences between the Googles and Facebooks and the rest of the data center industry? This thought occurred to me not while I was reading The Great Gatsby, but rather, when I happened upon an article discussing how it was now in vogue for company’s to build their own servers. While I always find these articles interesting—in a way it’s kind of like the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, but with data centers—they do tend to overstate the scale of what the behemoths of the business are doing.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when reading about the latest exploits of those firms capable of building facilities large enough to host a Super Bowl is that their needs are quite specific. In general, these mega malls of computing and storage have application groups that run in the megawatts in their operations. Unlike, your average retail, or wholesale, colocation facility that are mongrel-like in the composition of their clientele, these guys build and equip their data centers for a single customer—themselves. This is by no means bad, but it does mean that most of the time the needs of one are not compatible with those of the other. They are solving the problem of scale, whilst others need to solve the problem of heterogeneity.
The singularity of the mission for the facilities built by companies like Apple versus most data center operations is also a factor in the DIY versus “off the rack” server debate. While Facebook and Google need servers designed to address very focused requirements with a particular emphasis on break/fix and M/A/C logistics, the average data center server must be able to support a variety of applications. This multiplicity of application support while not completely obviating the benefit for a customized configuration, certainly makes it a shockingly bad ROI. Rather than viewing one approach as superior to the other, it is really a matter of each selecting the right tool for the job, based upon the right assumption set going in.
Just as many people are interested in seeing what folks like the Kardashians are up to—why I don’t know, but they seem to be on the cover of my wife’s People magazines quite a bit—reading about the DIY server approach used by the data center industry’s version of the 1% is interesting to us on a visceral level. While I’m not sure how many of us would want a brother-in-law named Kanye, most of us would love the opportunity to design our own servers. Unfortunately, the needs of the vast majority of data center operators require the durability of a Camry and not the luxury of a Rolls-Royce nor the specialty of a UPS van.
In a sense, the use of custom designed servers is a lot like Fitzgerald surmised. While it may be all the rage for the rarified few, the rest of us don’t run in those circles.