Facebook joins the ranks of industry's elite

Social networking company has enough muscle, clout to drive hardware innovation

Facebook's start-up days are long behind it.

That was made clear Thursday when executives from the social networking company announced that they had worked with industry giants Intel, AMD, Hewlett-Packard and Dell to create their own server and data center designs. They also shared the specifications of what they created with the rest of the industry.

It's not news that Facebook, with more than 500 million users , is a major player in the online industry. However, on Thursday it became startlingly clear just how important the company has become.

"It's an indicator of their change in status," said Richard Fichera, an analyst at Forrester Research. "This certainly is like a coming out party.... Not everybody is big enough to merit designing your own data center."

The initiative that Facebook announced, called the Open Compute Project, reveals the secret sauce behind its redesigned servers and data center -- the features that make its systems more efficient, cheaper and more lightweight.

Facebook is all about the muscle of its data center -- the company has made its name and fortune on serving up users' status updates, photos and videos. Company co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said data centers based on the new design will use 38% less energy and cost 24% less to build -- all while delivering data to users when they want it.

"We're not selling anything today, but we do hope to benefit from this -- primarily in the area of accelerating innovation," said Frank Frankovsky, director of hardware design at Facebook. "That's the reason we're doing it -- to drive efficiency for ourselves and then to benefit others."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research, said the fact that Facebook has enough clout to drive hardware innovation and to design something significant enough to share with the rest of the industry says a lot about how far the company has come from the startup it was just a few years ago.

"If anybody still doubted the validity of social networking, this kind of takes care of that," he said. "Facebook has so much power that they can now change the direction of computing.... Today was a good example of Facebook having clout and getting out there and using it."

Facebook has been coming into its own. Last fall, Zuckerberg and Facebook's inception were the focus of a major motion picture, The Social Network. And just last month, Forbes announced that Zuckerberg and five others involved with Facebook made the magazine's 2011 Billionaires List.

Having eclipsed social networking competitors like MySpace, Facebook has moved on to bigger challengers.

Just last fall, industry watchers began taking note of the growing competition between Facebook and the biggest Internet company in the world -- Google. The fact that the social network had enough muscle and clout to take on the likes of Google said something about not only how far it had come, but also where people expect it to go.

Fichera said the announcement was proof that Facebook is playing in the same arena as Google.

"This is like Facebook saying, 'Hey, everyone thought we were big, but golly, we really are big,'" Fichera said. "There aren't many Web companies driving hardware innovation. That really marks Facebook as being one of the big guys. Up until now, that's only been a Google, Amazon, maybe Yahoo or eBay realm. This says Facebook is a big, big presence on the Web. This is really big."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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