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Business-grade tech enters consumer space

Facebook reimagines its data center to account for new demand created by consumer image sharing.

Many companies have been concerned about the consumer world invading the enterprise environment, but recent trends suggest that it may work both ways. Ars Technica writer John Timmer recently highlighted the evolution of network-attached storage and the technology's impact on the consumer and business market.

"A few years back, the low-end consumer hardware would do little more than ensure that the shared storage space would be visible on the local network," Timmer wrote. "If you wanted more sophisticated software, you had to pay to step up to business-class hardware. While some companies are still selling simple, stripped down network storage (Drobos and Apple's TimeCapsule are the primary examples), in general, this is no longer true. Several companies now offer NAS firmware that behaves identically across their entire product line, from single-drive home backup systems to high-end rack-mounted hardware."

The higher performance of NAS has also created a drive for standardization, which in turn has led to an expected set of features most customers look for when purchasing NAS systems, according to Timmer. These benefits include things such as printer sharing, but there is also demand for customization. Some companies have met that demand for versatility by allowing users to add disks, while the system scales to incorporate the new capacity. Social media integration has also become a common staple of many cloud storage offerings.

Social media and the new data center
Facebook has definitely taken notice of the social cloud storage trend. As GigaOM columnist Stacey Higginbotham pointed out, the social network is building a data center specifically tailored for social image sharing. Jay Parikh, vice president of infrastructure engineering at Facebook, told GigaOM that the company is taking a new approach to the data center to address the specific challenges created by social file sharing.

A user may want to access a given image on his or her profile, even after months of not accessing it. It's easy to imagine the problems that would be created if someone wanted to share pictures from childhood with his wife, and those images took more than a few seconds to load. As this Strangeloop infographic showcases, website abandonment happens after only three seconds. However, Facebook has budgetary limitations just like any other company and can't afford to always leverage high performance solutions such as storing images files in caches right next to servers, according to Parikh.

"Where we are going to be innovating at the data center, the hardware, the operating system and the kernel level,” Parikh told GigaOM. “All of that needs to be rethought. You can’t do this by shoving it into existing computing environments. You need a separate storage facility and other, bigger data centers, and different physical building and different design."

Parikh's answer to balancing those two goals is make Facebook's data centers more dynamic. He told GigaOM that he's considering a model that allows servers to turn on and off as needed, resulting in high performance with low power consumption. The company is also working on software to automate data migration based on its popularity to further optimize infrastructure. The solution doesn't come without its own set of problems, though. Building the data center that way uses significantly more floor space and would not be a viable option for businesses without the square feet to support it.