With more than 19 million users, Facebook has plenty of experience with scalability challenges, which company execs discuss in this month’s cover story in Fast Company. While much of the feature examines the company’s history and business strategy, chief operating officer Owen Van Natta discusses Facebook’s back-end and data center operations.
“We’re one of the largest MySQL Web sites in production,” says Van Natta, adding that the popular open-source database software, “has been a revolution for young entrepreneurs” because it frees them from paying hefty license fees for commercial database products. The site’s extraordinary traffic growth threatened to get ahead of its infrastructure, especially after the service was opened to high school students in 2005. Van Natta explains:
“We were just trying to keep the wheels on the wagon.” When (Van Natta) went to check the data center, he was horrified. “There were little fans like this big” – holding up his hands to indicate the size of a grapefruit – “tucked between the servers. It was over 110 degrees in some aisles.” And the data center guys were plugging in more servers and screwing them into racks, trying to keep up with the rapidly scaling site. The Plexiglas sides of the server racks were warping from the heat. “I was, like, Mayday!” he recalls. “We need to get on top of this!”
Let’s hope that was 110 degrees in the hot aisle. While it’s had its growing pains, Facebook has scaled into one of the Web’s busiest sites. The Fast Company features noted ComScore data that Facebook is now the sixth-most trafficked web destination in the U.S. Traffic has almost certainly been even higher in the last 10 days, as Facebook has been an important venue for online memorials and discussion in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.