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Facebook's data center play sidelines Google, Apple

Information, not hardware, is the secret sauce

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Open...and Shut Facebook, in one fell swoop, has made the Apple-versus-Google Android openness debate sound even sillier than it is.

On Thursday, Facebook didn't announce an open-source mobile platform that somehow manages to not be very open. No, that was Google.

Instead, Facebook announced it was open sourcing its server and data center designs. In other words, the secret sauce of how to massively scale at the smallest cost to the company's budget and the earth's environment.

This is big. Really, really big.

Google has never done this. Well, not quite. In 2009, the search and advertising giant shared some of the details of its custom servers. But as a general rule, Google, despite being a huge net contributor to open source, is super-secretive about its server and data center operations, as well as the customizations it makes to a lot of open-source software. According to Google, the software specializations it makes are so unique to Google that open sourcing them wouldn't be useful to anyone else.

As for Apple, while we occasionally glimpse details of its infrastructure ambitions, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs won't reveal the score of last night's San Francisco Giants' game, much less the details of any internal operations.

Why can Facebook do this? Because its secret sauce isn't data centers or servers. Facebook's secret sauce is pretty much wide open already: it's the network effect of nearly 600 million people using its service, with all the add-on services (advertising) enabled by that massive user base.

For that matter, Google's secret sauce isn't its data center technology, either. That's why Facebook's head of operations Jonathan Heiliger is right to suggest: "It's time to stop treating data centers like Fight Club."

The fight is elsewhere. It's in search algorithms and social gaming (Zynga) and so forth. The underlying technology is important but it's not what makes Google Google, or Facebook Facebook.

In other words, most companies - including big financial companies like Goldman Sachs or retail companies like Nordstrom - can afford to be much more open about the technology they use. Why? Because the more they share, the more it encourages others to open up too, and soon everyone would be operating a lot more efficiently with their respective secret sauces still very much in tact.

In the meantime, my hunch is that employees would rather work for an open, growing company than otherwise, which may be one reason that we've seen so many Google employees bolt for Facebook.

Yes, I think the fact that Facebook looks like risk-free financial upside is a big reason for the exodus from Mountain View to Palo Alto, but particularly for the best engineers, openness matters.

Well, now Facebook has out-opened them all.

It may be a way to help the industry, or it may simply be a way to one-up its data center-hungry competitors like Google. Either way, it won't hurt Facebook's business and may actually help its recruiting. Bonus. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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