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From social startup to tech giant: Facebook’s CTO talks open source and global connectivity

Source: Roland Moore-Colyer

facebook-startup-ip-1240-850Facebook’s story is well documented; Set up by a bunch of students to create a campus community, it has now grown into a 1.5 billion strong network, all in the space of a decade.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company now generates over $4bn in revenue, and over the years has acquried two popular web platforms in the form of Whatsapp and

So Facebook has come a long way in the time it takes some companies just to grow beyond startups.

A lot of this is down to the company’s strategy of moving from being just a social network into a platform company offering a foundation for developers to build wildly successful apps on, all of which Facebook takes a slice of.

Tech tales

Facebook has already signalled its ambitions to push into the virtual reality space with its purchase of Oculus Rift, and has plans to challenge Siri and Cortana in the artificial intelligence arena with its M virtual assistant.

However, as they stand these are consumer-led products; the benefits Facebook’s technology can bring to business and developer worlds lie a little deeper below the surface, within some of its “moonshot” projects.

V3 attended a briefing with Facebook’s chief technical officer (CTO), Mike Schroepfer, to get an insight into Facebook’s technical prowess and the direction in which it is travelling.

Schroepfer was keen to highlight the social network’s infrastructure, an often forgotten part of the company, overshadowed by its user numbers and ballooning advertising revenues.

Indeed, to support a billion daily users Facebook needs a robust infrastructure, otherwise it could find frustrated users, unable to spill their hearts out online, opting to use arch-rival Twitter instead.

“It takes a very large infrastructure to power something used by a billion people every day,” said Schroepfer (left). “One of the reasons we were able to scale to those numbers is just a massive investment over the last six or seven years in basic web infrastructure.

“We went from leasing data centres and buying servers to basically building and owning everything ourselves,” he added.

He noted how, for example, the company has US data centres in North Carolina, Iowa, and Oregon, and one in Sweden. Another two centres are set to come online this year and in 2016.

Schroepfer highlighted how Facebook located its data centres in areas where the climate helps to cool the heavily loaded server racks.

The company is also pursuing the eco-friendly approach to data centre power, with the goal of using 25 percent renewable energy by the end of 2015 and 50 percent by 2018. Schroepfer said this will involve looking at clean energy from the likes of hydro and wind power.

By making its server hardware and software work as efficiently as possible Schroepfer said Facebook has saved $2bn.

Facebook’s infrastructure can also benefit the larger IT world, as it makes its server blueprints and software code open for others to use as a template for their own infrastructure.

“We’ve opened up all this hardware and innovation for people to use,” said Schroepfer.

“We open it up in two ways; Open Compute is our system for opening up the hardware side of things so you can download the IP and designs for most of the data centres and servers. And then we massively open source the software stack that we use to power Facebook.”

Open software range

While enterprise IT teams can use Facebook’s infrastructure blueprints to build their own efficient systems, developers have even more scope to tap into the social network’s resources in the creation of software tools.

Facebook runtime code HHVM, which is based on the popular PHP language and powers its core site, is available as open-source code. Schroepfer highlighted that the efficiency of the code can yield fivefold improvements in scalability for companies that use it, allowing them to cut down their hardware needs and costs.

As such, HHVM has found its way into Wikipedia and other websites that receive huge amounts of traffic on a daily basis.

React Native, Facebook’s software tool for programming interfaces for web and mobile sites, is also available as open-source code, and has been used by Netflix and social media site Pinterest.

Numerous other parts of Facebook’s developer software suite, such as bug-seeking code analysis tool Infer, have been released into the open-source world.

Facebook already offers its Canvas development platform for software makers to build apps and games on top of Facebook, as well as offering a host of application programme interfaces (APIs) so that third-party applications can tap into Facebook’s core platform and its authentication services.

But, opening up software tools for non-Facebook-centric developments gives everyone, from individual developers to teams of enterprise app builders, access to the type of robust tools that support apps and services used by a seventh of the world’s population.

This can help companies bypass the need to invest in costly developer software packages, as long as they are willing to explore the potential of the expansive open-source environment.

Connecting the world

One of Facebook’s more ambitious projects is to bring internet connectivity to areas that either lack it or have very basic connectivity.

“Via Internet.org and the Connectivity Lab what we’ve been doing is exploring radical new business models around new technological solutions to dramatically reduce the cost of access to the internet,” said Schroepfer.

Internet.org is the name Facebook has given this initiative , which thus far has seen Facebook work with network operators to create a platform that delivers apps and services that require very low bandwidth to remote areas. It recently opened up the platform to developers so they might build their own apps that meet the low bandwidth parameters.

The social network also plans to beam wireless internet connectivity to parts of sub-Saharan Africa through the use of a soon-to-be-launched AMOS-6 satellite, owned by Israeli firm Spacecom.

Slightly more far-fetched, but so far in the realms of possibility, is the Akila solar-powered, carbon fibre constructed aircraft that can effectively drop internet connectivity from 50,000 to 90,000ft to cover a 50-mile radius.

Schroepfer said it is hoped that in the next 10 years Facebook will have a fleet of these lightweight craft zapping internet connectivity between them using custom-made lasers to create a network “backbone in the sky”.

“We’ve done scale model testing and air dynamic proofs, and we’re pretty excited about it,” he said. “The idea is to scale this out.”

Connecting the unconnected will invariably mean more users for Facebook, but it also provides mass communication access to vast swathes of the world’s populace. And with that comes all the economic, social and broader cultural benefits the internet has facilitated in regions where broadband infrastructure is well established.

If Facebook gets Internet.org right and avoids hampering it with limited service agreements, it could facilitate the creation of local digital businesses and services in areas where wired infrastructure is never likely to reach in more conventional ways.

Moreover, the impact on the business world as whole will be vast, as it will provide access to new markets for e-commerce, web services, apps and other technology-centric offerings to tap into.

In essence, Facebook’s global internet plans could open up billions in untapped revenue for itself, its affiliates and other web companies, as well as help jump-start digital businesses in the most unexpected areas.

Right here, right now

But, as V3 highlighted to Schroepfer, these connectivity plans are some time away from fruition. So what innovations can we expect from Facebook in the shorter term?

“When I started we were a website, then we added a mobile app and what’s happened is we’ve broken that experience apart into lots of different applications and experiences. So instead of just the big blue app, you have Messenger, you have WhatsApp, Instagram, [and],” he said.

“I think what you’re seeing is an evolution of this into a larger number of dedicated experiences to solve issues with one-to-one and one-to-many messaging, photo sharing, small group communication, overall Facebook communication, and each of those are evolving into products over time.”

As such, Facebook plans to componentise more of its services found inside the core platform, making them available for specific uses.

For example, Schroepfer revealed how Facebook has created a separate app for the “Groups” segment of the main site, which it uses throughout the company as a dedicated communication and collaboration tool.

The likely evolution of this will see more apps dedicated for business use that stem from Facebook for Work, along with those designed for general use by the social network’s users.

Schroepfer also added that Facebook will keep exploring how it will boost the ease at which it audience makes use of its services: “So much of what we’re focused on is just hyper-optimising all of these things, so that whatever you’re trying to do we just make it a little bit easier every day.”

So while it is still easy to dismiss Facebook as a social network for consumers, marketers and brands, Schroepfer has proved that it is very much a true technology company with ambitions to really change the face of communication, digital technology and business across the planet.

And while it is not alone in having these lofty goals, particularly given the experimental work Google carries out , Facebook is still the pioneer it first was nearly 10 years ago.

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