Google and Akamai: Distributed Computing Platforms

Technology Review article discusses the commonalities in the distributed computing platform both Google and Akamai have built, and at the same time contrasts their different culture: Google’s “cult of secrecy” and Akamai’s “kingdom of openness.”

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 Google’s vice president of engineering Urs Hoelzle . So if you can just buy 10 percent extra, its 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.

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

Akamais network operates on the same complexity scale as Googles. 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 Googles servers are used by practically everyone on the Internet today, so are Akamais.

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 isnt software that a company can buy off the shelfthey require laborious in-house development. It is, in fact, software that is one of Akamai’s key competitive advantages.

To be fair, there are important differences between Google and Akamaidifferences that assure that Google wont be breaking into Akamais business anytime soon, nor Akamai moving into Googles. Both companies have developed infrastructure for running massively parallel systems, but the applications that they are running on top of those systems are different. Googles 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.

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 date.

Ted Schadler, a vice president at the market research firm Forrester, says that its 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 doesnt 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, eBay and even Yahoo!. They are all services that enable business activityfoundation services that [can be] scaled securely, Schadler says.

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 infrastructureits retail versus wholesale. There will be lots and lots of these retail-oriented services.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.