The magic that makes Google tick

The magic that makes Google tick

Summary: Google's vice-president of engineering was in London this week to talk to potential recruits about just what lies behind that search page. ZDNet UK snuck in to listen

TOPICS: Servers
The numbers alone are enough to make your eyes water.

  • Over four billion Web pages, each an average of 10KB, all fully indexed
  • Up to 2,000 PCs in a cluster
  • Over 30 clusters
  • 104 interface languages including Klingon and Tagalog
  • One petabyte of data in a cluster -- so much that hard disk error rates of 10-15 begin to be a real issue
  • Sustained transfer rates of 2Gbps in a cluster
  • An expectation that two machines will fail every day in each of the larger clusters
  • No complete system failure since February 2000

It is one of the largest computing projects on the planet, arguably employing more computers than any other single, fully managed system (we're not counting distributed computing projects here), some 200 computer science PhDs, and 600 other computer scientists.

And it is all hidden behind a deceptively simple, white, Web page that contains a single one-line text box and a button that says Google Search.

When Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, he was alluding to the trick of hiding the complexity of the job from the audience, or the user. Nobody hides the complexity of the job better than Google does; so long as we have a connection to the Internet, the Google search page is there day and night, every day of the year, and it is not just there, but it returns results. Google recognises that the returns are not always perfect, and there are still issues there -- more on those later -- but when you understand the complexity of the system behind that Web page you may be able to forgive the imperfections. You may even agree that what Google achieves is nothing short of sorcery.

On Thursday evening, Google's vice-president of engineering, Urs Hölzle, who has been with the company since 1999 and who is now a Google fellow, gave an insight to would-be Google employees into just what it takes to run an operation on such a scale, with such reliability. ZDNet UK snuck in the back to glean some of the secrets of Google's magic.

Google's vision is broader than most people imagine, said Hölzle: "Most people say Google is a search engine but our mission is to organise information to make it accessible."

Behind that, he said, comes a vast scale of computing power based on cheap, no-name hardware that is prone to failure. There are hardware malfunctions not just once, but time and time again, many times a day.

Yes, that's right, Google is built on imperfect hardware. The magic is writing software that accepts that hardware will fail, and expeditiously deals with that reality, says Hölzle.

The problem
Google indexes over four billion Web pages, using an average of 10KB per page, which comes to about 40TB. Google is asked to search this data over 1,000 times every second of every day, and typically comes back with sub-second response rates. If anything goes wrong, said Hölzle, "you can't just switch the system off and switch it back on again."

The job is not helped by the nature of the Web. "In academia," said Hölzle, "the information retrieval field has been around for years, but that is for books in libraries. On the Web, content is not nicely written -- there are many different grades of quality."

Some, he noted, may not even have text. "You may think we don't need to know about those but that’s not true -- it may be the home page of a very large company where the Webmaster decided to have everything graphical. The company name may not even appear on the page."

Google deals with such pages by regarding the Web not as a collection of text documents, but a collection of linked text documents, with each link containing valuable information.

"Take a link pointing to the Stanford university home page," said Hölzle. "This tells us several things: First, that someone must think pointing to Stanford is important. The text in the link also gives us some idea of what is on the page being pointed to. And if we know something about the page that contains the link we can tell something about the quality of the page being linked to."

This knowledge is encapsulated in Google's famous PageRank algorithm, which looks not just at the number of links to a page but at the quality or weight of those links, to help determine which page is most likely to be of use, and so which is presented at the top of the list when the search results are returned to the user. Hölzle believes the PageRank algorithm is 'relatively' spam resistant, and those interested in exactly how it works can find more information here.

Topic: Servers

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  • Hello
    One thing that ticks me off about google is that it desplays multiple results on a search query from the same web site.
    How hard can it be to limit the exposer to one url per query?
    Is it logical to have a website show up hundreds of times on a search query?
    Try searching for the word "algarve" (region in Portugal).
    I think it is googles mission to deliver me to a website where I can find the content I am looking for, and not to worry about holding me up to reach the cookie jar and sink it down my mouth.
    Show me where the supermarket is, I will find the shelf!
    Thank you.
    Keep clicking...

    Hilton Santos
  • Dude... don't know what you're talking about. Tried your search and got 10 results for 10 different websites listed. Google DOES eliminate results that are alike.
  • Hi Carlos
    Thank you for your feedback.
    Search for "algarve car hire"
    You will notice as I have (saved the results in the case you would like me to send them to you)
    that the same website:
    comes in at 2nd and 3rd position, if you continue down the list you will find it time and time again.
    Are the results relevant?
    Well... I guess one of the results is, all others are repeats, that point to the same web page...
  • Open letter to Google.

    Hello my dear Googlers

    My comment has nothing to do with google suggest, I find it very useful.
    Now what really squeezes the sh.. out of me is ONE THING and this is it:

    Why the hell do you allow a website to show up multiple times on one search query?

    Why GOOGLE? Why?

    It seams so simple to deal with, and trust me when I say, that I AM NOT A GENIUS!

    Is there not a way of eliminating, the multiple exposer of a given website by means of it

    "Now please excuse me if I sound dramatic, but, HOW HARD can it be to eliminate the following results after the first one has been shown?"

    typical question from someone who has no idea what they are asking for.

    HOW HARD can it be?
    have you tried doing this? Have you tried to put up thousands of computers and make a "slight" adjustment on a program running on the whole network?
    If you have not tried doing it, dont pretend to understand how it works. You have no idea what you are asking for. You can probably send some money to Google so they can have the resources to process your request... Its not like you actually paid Google to do the search for you right? You want a personalized search engine? Go make one yourself. It's relatively easy to do... well, that is, if you have the brain for it.
  • Very dear Frustrated Research and Development specialist

    I am sorry you feel this way...
    Why don
  • Oh Wilton, Alem de parvo es muito burro!!!!
    Epa why Google?? mesmo de puto.

  • And he calls himself development specialist ...
    Some guys are so stupid !!!
  • Sou puto mas tenho colh... para assinar o que escrevo...
  • Dear Hilton,

    First of all, please forgive me for the bad english.
    Good afternoon. I don't think very ethical from your part to criticize other's websites listed on google. If you want to criticize google then e-mail them with general matters. Never with particular cases. I think that might not be the best way to gain customers or positions on google. I know several websites, experts in many matters that only show up on page 14 on google and on yahoo thay're on page 1. Can you imagine. I hope you try to compete with other companies in defferent ways then criticizing their marketing on the internet. Criticize Google if you want, but never pointing your finger to a particular website.
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  • Hello One thing that ticks me off about google is that it desplays...

    agreed can be a bit of a pain
    Trust me i can help