Tale of two data center strategies: Apple vs. Facebook

Apple's upcoming iCloud service revolves around a data center in Maiden N.C. and specifics about the innards of this computing powerhouse are few and far between, but what details are emerging look vastly different than what you'll find at Facebook.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Apple's upcoming iCloud service revolves around a data center in Maiden N.C. and specifics about the innards of this computing powerhouse are few and far between. But the details that are emerging about Apple's data center look vastly different than those build-your-own creations from the likes of Google and Facebook.

As noted following WWDC, Apple's data center slides appeared to feature a dose of Hewlett-Packard boxes---along with some gear from Teradata. Apple's most recent job listings for Maiden N.C. highlight the data center environment, which will look familiar to most technology executives. Like a good ice cream shop, there are flavors of just about everything.

From the job listings for Maiden openings:

"Our data center environment consists of Mac OS X, IBM/AIX, Sun/Solaris, and Linux systems. Though this position is focused primarily on Red Hat Linux and Oracle Enterprise Linux, you should also understand SAN, RAID, file system, and IP networking technology."

"Candidate will be responsible for storage on IBM/AIX, Sun/Solaris, and Linux operating systems working with IBM Enterprise storage including DS technologies, Netapp(FCP and NAS) and EMC storage systems."

"Should be familiar with director class SAN switches, preferably Brocade working with DCFM, as well as various workgroup SAN switches...A strong Sun background in relation to SAN. Tivoli Storage Manager with IBM Tape hardware and/or other Enterprise level backup/restore software."

Skills needed include "modifying and rebuilding the Linux kernel," "scripting in an administration languages such as Perl, any shell or C programming," configuration of Apache, PHP, MySQL and "at least one of the following virtualization technologies: KVM, Xen and VMware."

Other data center openings call for an SAP project managers, analysts and leads. Database architects require skills in the following.

  • RDBMS: Oracle, Teradata, MySQL, DB2;
  • NoSQL DB: Hadoop, HDFS, mongoDB, Cassandra;
  • Columnar DB: Vertica, SAP Hana.

When you digest these various job openings, Apple looks a lot like other enterprises---a big heterogeneous environment with a bit of everything. In some respects, Apple's environment isn't all that surprising. For starters, Apple has a massive supply chain and that typically means a lot of Oracle and SAP. Meanwhile, all those data warehouse items are related to the fact that Apple is a large retailer in its own right. Toss in a cloud service and the need for analytics and you even get a mention of SAP Hana in the job listings.

The big question here is what entities helped out with the Maiden data center integration. Accenture would be a likely candidate, but an outfit like Lockheed Martin or Unisys wouldn't be all that surprising either. Apple may have rolled its own data center without integration help. Rest assured, Apple's data center is a tightly managed affair. After all, iCloud can't be a rebranded MobileMe.

Now contrast this relatively secretive Apple environment with a large enterprise that's a bit more simple: Facebook.

In April, Facebook held a data center confessional. It launched the Open Compute Project that outlined its server designs---Facebook makes its own stripped down gear---and specs for everything from lighting to cooling.

The move was notable to watch for two reasons. First, companies don't cough up data center designs due to worries about competitive advantage. And then there's the reaction that Facebook's move received.

Webheads---folks that love scale---were giddy about Facebook's move. Enterprise insiders scoffed a bit and noted that Facebook's scale-up architecture makes sense for what it needs to do, but other businesses are more complicated.

Facebook's biggest requirement is uptime. Supply chain, retail store integration and all those things Apple needs to manufacture things are not needed in Facebook's world.

Now some of the backchannel chatter about Facebook may have been sour milk. No one wants to hear chest thumping over data center PUE ratings. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: "You can build servers and design them or get the products that the mass manufacturers put out. A lot of the stuff put out wasn’t in line with what we needed."

Now contrast Facebook's penchant for ditching vanity plastic with Apple's pictures of its data center. There's a lot of vanity plastic there. Can you imagine an aesthetics guru like Steve Jobs standing in front of Facebook's no-frills servers (right)?

Probably not. Fortunately, there are many ways to build data centers and meet objectives.

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