Book review – Planet Google

No one in the IT industry should underestimate the scale of Google’s ambition.

Its first-ever press release, issued in June 1999 to mark the securing of $25 million in venture funding, declares the humble goal: “To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Not only has it never diverted from the “more data is better data” mantra, it has progressively expanded its definition of ‘organising information’ beyond search to include information storage, management and processing – for consumers, businesses and public organisations.

Randall Stross’s Planet Google is not the first book to chart to rise of Google from the creation of the world’s most effective web search algorithm to the establishment of a highly lucrative business model centred on search-led advertising. Indeed, John Battelle’s The Search and The Google Story by David Vise and Mark Malseed both did a superb job in tracking that elevation.

What New York Times writer Stross does, though, is capture the sense that those moves – while today still providing the vast bulk of the company’s revenues – are just the beginnings of a journey to turn Google into a dominant force in the wider world of information technology.

For business readers, those moves manifest themselves in Google’s attempts to hatch a powerful cloud computing capability. And Stross provides considerable insight into what Google is preparing to offer as the basis for many businesses’ IT services of the future.

To create this infrastructure, the company is leveraging a model of DIY IT that dates back to 1999: rather than rely on systems build by specialists such as IBM, HP, Sun or Dell to drive its data centres, Google has engineered its own servers and networking designs from low-level components – “computers that [are] able to scale up as fast as the web,” as Stross puts it.

Historically, the competitive edge it has gained through that is well documented. Even five years ago, a typical Google-built rack contained 176 microprocessors, 176 gigabytes of memory and seven terabytes of storage. Google could build that for $278,000 – less than half the price of an eight-processing machine with half the memory from any of the mainstream server makers at the time.

As one of Silicon Valley’s veteran reporters, Stross has also had an insider’s observation point for Google’s efforts to build the vast data centre network that will fuel its cloud computing ambitions. He describes five mega-data centres, created at a cost of $600 million a piece, but he leaves the reader to use their imagination about just how much spare capacity is sitting there in anticipation of the cloud computing revolution.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt predicted that 90% of the computing that is delivered through desktop PCs today will be handled in the cloud by remote servers.

From Google’s perspective, the first step towards that future is Google Apps – the would-be nemesis of Microsoft Office. Beyond that is the creation of further applications and the hosting of applications for others.

Of course, Google still has some proving to do in the eyes of business customers, says Stross.

“Google’s strategic vision, of moving all computer users to the cloud, [will] remain unrealised unless it devised a way to gain the trust of customers,” Stross says.

Large and successful it may be, but it remains an unknown quantity to many who run IT departments in large companies and government organisations. Its dominance in the world of web search doesn’t necessarily impress corporate technologists, whose concerns centre on an ability to have something like Google Apps running and available 99.9% of the time – at least. “They also [want] to see convincing evidence that Google’s systems…handle the increased load of Google Apps without accidental data loss.”

To some measure, the company has proved that already, having rolled out the Google Apps service to tens of thousands of users at US universities – for free. Now, there is evidence that corporate customers are beginning to follow suit.

Google itself is scaling fast as it prepares for its new role, with a head count that has risen from just 1,628 in 2003 to 20,123. As CEO Eric Schmidt has said on several occasions: “We work on big problems that affect people at scale that have not been solved before” – and that takes considerable brain power.

While Planet Google could have dug further into the problems Schmidt has in mind – and bypassed some of the received knowledge about Google’s history – it does provide plenty of pointers as to what the world will look like if Google’s ambitions are even partly realised.

Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know. By Randall Stross. Published by Atlantic Books. ISBN: 9781843549802. Price: £16.99.

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

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