Facebook engineers revealed an interesting tidbit of information at the Dell-Samsung Chief Information Officer Forum in Half Moon Bay, California, last month. When the social networking giant recently decided to build two new data centers, it couldn't find the exact servers it wanted from Dell or Hewlett-Packard, so the company's engineers decided to design their own.
"We weren't able to get exactly what we wanted,” Frank Frankovsky, Facebook's director of hardware design, said at the conference on data-center technology, according to Businessweek. "People want to be able to build it their way. They kind of want a Burger King: ‘I don't like pickles -- why do I have to have pickles?'"
Some argue that Dell, HP, and other companies selling generic off-the-shelf servers are losing billions in sales because Internet companies like Facebook are switching to do-it-yourself servers. My colleague Larry Dignan argues that it's simply too early to tell if there will be a noticeable hit.
Facebook, which is outfitting data centers with thousands of servers, is a large customer to companies like Dell and HP. By cutting out the middle-man, it is threatening the traditional business model. Custom servers are a cheaper, more efficient option since they cut out unnecessary components, upgrades, and backup services that server makers typically include. It all comes down to money: it's the surging costs for running and maintaining data centers that causes companies like Facebook to seek more economical options.
Facebook's servers, which are designed to contain the minimum number of components required for their specific task, have custom power supplies and circuit boards in sheet-metal enclosures designed to maximize airflow with the minimum number of fans. It's tweaks like this, as well as a specially designed facility, that have boosted efficiency by 38 percent and reduced the cost of building a data center in Oregon by 24 percent, according to the company.
Dell currently supplies some customized servers to Facebook, according to Tim Mattox, vice president of worldwide enterprise product management, but it's still losing a lot in potential sales. HP hasn't managed to convince Facebook, yet. Server makers will have to adapt by designing products that fit the new needs of data-center builders. They will have to figure out how to do so in a way that still leaves them a profit margin off the sales.