Open Data Centers, Another Look

April 10, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about Facebook’s decision to “open source” the design of its new data center in Oregon, with the Open Compute ProjectArs Technica also has an article on the announcement, examining why Facebook may have taken this step.  The author, Jon Stokes, argues that, contrary to one’s instincts, hardware is an essential factor in Facebook’s business, and in its rival Google’s.

Google is essentially a maker of very capital-intensive, full-custom, warehouse-scale computers—a “hardware company,” if you will. It monetizes those datacenters by keeping as many users as possible connected to them, and by serving ads to those users. To make this strategy work, it has to hire lots of software people, who can write the Internet-scale apps (search, mainly) that keep users connected and viewing ads.

Keeping users connected longer obviously provides the opportunity to display more ads; and getting those users connected in more different ways (e.g, for messaging, photo sharing, and event scheduling) provides more information on them, which facilitates the sale of more ads.  (Although it may be natural for us as users to think of ourselves as Facebook’s customers, we are not; we are, essentially,  Facebook’s product.  The advertisers are its customers.)

Facebook has an advantage in this game, because people tend to share more information with their Facebook friends than they might with the world at large.  But Google has much deeper pockets than Facebook, and size is an advantage in a capital-intensive business like building data centers.  So, Stokes argues, Facebook’s move is a clever attempt to reduce Google’s advantage, by using open collaboration to leverage its own efforts.

It’s an intriguing idea, and I suspect a largely correct one.

WebM Video Update

April 10, 2011

Last May, I posted a note here about Google’s just-introduced project, WebM, to develop a new video standard for the Web.  The aim of the project, which combines the already-existing Vorbis audio codec with the VP8 Video codec that Google had recently acquired, is to create a standard unencumbered by patents or royalty requirements.

An article at Technology Review provides an update on the progress of the project.  Google has now made available tools that should enable chip makers to provide hardware support for WebM’s encoding and decoding functions.

An ambitious attempt by Google to shift the Web over to a new, royalty-free video format has taken significant strides. New software has been released that can build the format into dedicated chips for cell phones and other gadgets, perhaps the most crucial step before it can displace the proprietary video format that currently dominates.

Having support for WebM functions in hardware will improve performance in any device, but it is especially critical for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices.  Without it, doing the processing in software using the device’s CPU takes too long, consumes too much battery power, or both.

So far, there have been no definite announcements by hardware manufacturers of their inclusion of WebM support, but some of the “usual suspects” are likely participants.

Kuusela [engineering manager of the WebM Project hardware team] wrote in a blog post that “several top-tier semiconductor partners” are already starting to build their next chips with VP8 built in, but wouldn’t name specific firms. Major chipmakers, including AMD, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments, are public supporters of the project, though, although they will likely support both VP8 and existing formats in their chips.

Although the WebM video format is supported in the recently released Firefox 4 browser, and (of course) in Google’s own Chrome browser, it has yet to make significant inroads on the Web as a whole.  Google has also released a WebM plug-in for Microsoft’s recently released Internet Explorer 9.  The company’s YouTube site has started encoding some uploaded videos with WebM, but the coverage is far from complete; there are also still some technical drawbacks with WebM, compared with the H.264 proprietary codec endorsed, for example, by Apple.

It is at least mildly encouraging that the WebM project is making progress.  As the article points out, even if WebM does not displace H.264 and other proprietary solutions, its presence as a competitor will very likely benefit consumers.  We need only remember that Microsoft let Internet Explorer languish until Firefox began to make significant gains in market share.

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