Google's Data Center Secret, Leadership is top in industry

There are lots of opinions out there from Data Center Leadership with Google making an occasional appearance.  Google is the biggest data center operator out there and as one Google employee has said "many dismiss what we do as unique to Google, but we actually work on many issues that are general industry issues."  And, as another friend who knows someone in the Google data center group has said the best manager he has had is Urs Hölzle.  Which fits in with this post I have been thinking about for a while.

Is Google's Data Center advantage due to its leadership?  Not the size of its data center footprint?

For those of you who don't know Urs here is his profile on Wikipedia.

Urs Hoelzle

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Urs Hölzle is senior vice president of operations and Google Fellow at Google. As one of Google's first ten employees and its first VP of Engineering, he has shaped much of Google's development processes and infrastructure.

Before joining Google, he was an Associate Professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara. He received a master's degree in computer science from ETH Zurich in 1988 and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship that same year. In 1994, he earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University, where his research focused on programming languages and their efficient implementation. Via a startup founded by Urs and Lars Bak, that work then evolved into a high-performance Java VM named HotSpot, acquired by Sun' JavaSoft unit in 1997 and from there became Sun's premier JVM implementation.[1]

WSJ had a recent post on the issue that CIOs don't make good leaders.

Why CIOs Are Last Among Equals

Their perceived shortcomings are often real. But they can be overcome.


Are CIOs doomed to forever be second-class citizens among top executives?

We don't think so, but they've got a lot of work to do to avoid that fate.

Chief information officers are more important than ever to the success of their companies, given the crucial role information technology has come to play in every aspect of business. But in most companies, the CIO still isn't viewed as a peer by other senior executives, who tend to see CIOs as specialists lacking the full set of broad management skills. Very few CIOs have become CEOs, especially outside the high-tech industry.


Wesley Bedrosian

What's holding CIOs back? The problem is that, for the most part, their fellow executives' perceptions are correct. Based on our research, it's clear that most CIOs don't have the broad business understanding, strategic vision and interpersonal skills that it takes to run a company or at least play a bigger role in running one.

Well Urs doesn't have this problem as he is on Google Operating Committee, was Google's first VP of Eng, and has access and influence to Google Executives.

Urs Hölzle
Senior Vice President, Operations & Google Fellow

Urs Hölzle served as the company's first vice president of engineering and led the development of Google's technical infrastructure. His current responsibilities include the design and operation of the servers, networks and datacenters that power Google. He is also renowned for both his red socks and his free-range Leonberger, Yoshka (Google's top dog).

A year ago Google's Data Center team held their Energy Efficiency summit, and there was a peak into the staff who works for Urs like Chris Malone, Ben Jai, Jimmy Clidaras, Luiz Barroso, and Joe Kava.

I was impressed that Urs stayed the whole time at the Summit, and I was able to have side conversations that built upon my interview I had with him back in Oct 2008.  His knowledge and understanding of the business and technical issues are impressive.

So, is Urs the keystone that keeps the whole Google Data Center group running?  And without him the arch (organization collapses).

A keystone is the architectural piece at the crown of a vault or arch which marks its apex, locking the other pieces into position.[1] This makes a keystone very important structurally.[

I would argue as good as Urs is he has built up a solid organization and embedded the importance of the data center infrastructure (buildings, HW, and software) at the executive level.  I am constantly amazed at how much money is spent on data center redundancy, and people are treated as expendable.  If you spend money on getting the best equipment, why don't companies spend money on getting the best people for the data center?

One fact that beats all the rest of the data center leadership is Urs is the richest being one of the first ten Google employees, but it also means he wants Google to survive long term.  What is a sustainable data center organization when Urs leaves?

I can think of other executives who have the talent to present their ideas at the executive level, like Mike Manos and Olivier Sanche. 

Can you think of other Data Center executives who can present compelling presentations to the executive staff, and his organization looks to for data center leadership?

James Hamilton pointed out folks at Netflix and RIM.

After the talk I got into a more detailed discussion with many folks from Netflix and Canada’s Research in Motion, the maker of theBlackberry. The discussion ended up in a long lunch over a big table with folks from both teams. The common theme of the discussion was predictably, given the companies and folks involved, innovation in high scale service and how to deal with incredible growth rates. Both RIM and Netflix are very successful and, until you have experienced and attempted to manage internet growth rates, you really just don’t know. I'm impressed with what they are doing. Growth brings super interesting problems and I learned from both and really enjoyed spending time with them.

Are the companies who have the most sustainable data centers the one who have the best leadership?  BTW, these executives get the value of a green data center strategy.