Data Centers: For When The Cloud is Not Enough

Cloud computing has been a godsend to start-ups. But once a company grows past a certain point, a custom-built data center offers the best performance and cost-effectiveness, as Twitter and Facebook can attest.

Rich Miller

July 22, 2010

3 Min Read
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Cloud computing has been a godsend to start-ups, allowing new companies to quickly scale applications without huge up-front investments in hardware and specialized facilities. But once a company grows past a certain point, a custom-built data center offers the best performance and cost-effectiveness.

That's the message from two of social media's biggest success stories, Facebook and Twitter, who have each begun building their own data centers after initially relying on third-party providers. Facebook is building a new data center in Prineville, Oregon, while Twitter this week unveiled plans for a custom data center near Salt Lake City.

In shifting to the do-it-yourself model, Facebook and Twitter are following the lead of other huge "Internet-scale" companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and eBay, who all build custom data centers to maximize gains in performance and cost.

Scaling to Millions of Users
Operating a custom data center infrastructure becomes appealing once an organization has more than 10 million users, according to Jonathan Heiliger, Facebook's VP of Technical Operations.

"For a consumer web site starting today, I would absolutely run on the cloud," Heiliger said last month at the Structure 2010 conference. "It allows you to focus on building your product. But if you have 10 million users, that's a pretty big check I'm writing to someone else. How much control do I have? If that vendor has an outage, SLAs are capped at the value of the contract.

"A number of web properties of this size are going back to building data centers and buying servers to get better control or deliver better performance," he continued. "We look at this one or twice a year. We can do it cheaper than the proposals we have received to date."

Control A Key Factor
Another consideration is the ability to customize your data center infrastructure to provide more granular control of operations. "That control gives us a ton of flexibility, and we can build new things without having to wait for our partner," said Heiliger.

Twitter's Jean-Paul Cozzatti echoed that point in announcing the company's data center plans. Twitter previously used NTT America and Amazon Web Services to its infrastructure. 

"Importantly, having our own data center will give us the flexibility to more quickly make adjustments as our infrastructure needs change," Cozzatti noted. "Twitter will have full control over network and systems configuration, with a much larger footprint in a building designed specifically around our unique power and cooling needs. Twitter will be able to define and manage to a finer grained SLA on the service as we are managing and monitoring at all layers."

Impact on Data Center Ecosystem
As Facebook and Twitter "graduate" from third-party services to their own data centers, their investment will shift as well. Rather than investing in managed hosting fees or leases for wholesale data center space, the companies are now spending millions of dollars with companies that design, build and commission new facilities.

One interested party is Digital Realty Trust (DLR), which is landlord to both Facebook and NTT America, Twitter's primary service provider. Earlier this year Digital Realty rolled out an initiative targeting build-to-suit projects to construct single-tenant data centers like the ones being built by Twitter and Facebook.

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