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As Google Grows, It's Up To Joe Kava To Ensure Data Centers Keep Pace

By Casey Laughman, Managing Editor - May 2014 - Data Centers


Whether it's directions, email, or figuring out who played Goon No. 2 in that old movie the other night, the odds are pretty good that you have used Google recently. After all, a company name becoming a verb is a pretty good indication that it's become the de facto standard for its industry. In Google's industry, that kind of use demands some heavy-duty support from the data center. It's up to Joe Kava, vice president of data centers, to make sure that support is delivered in all aspects of the company's data centers, from design to operations.

Considering the growth spurt the company has been on, it isn't an easy task. In 2006, Google brought online its first owned and operated data center, a $1.2 billion facility in The Dalles, Ore. Since then, the company has brought or will soon be bringing online 11 more data centers spread across six countries and four continents. As the person responsible for Google's data centers since joining the company in 2008, Kava has been in charge of most of those projects.

With billions of dollars and hundreds of people involved in the data centers, which are the backbone of Google's entire business, making the right decision on a design, construction, or operating procedure can be a daunting task, especially when it needs to be done quickly. Kava handles that task by focusing on what the data tells him.

"You can't be emotionally invested in a design or emotionally invested in a solution," he says. "The answer is always 'it depends.' It depends on what the data says is the right decision."

Making those right decisions based on data is the cornerstone of Kava's strategic philosophy, which is constantly tested by the demands of Google's growth from a search engine into an Internet behemoth. Doing so is helping to ensure that when the company needs more capacity, it can be delivered in a way that not only makes financial sense, but provides the ability to scale up to meet the next challenge.

"It's part of our culture that things are absolutely going to change tomorrow," Kava says, and it's his job to make sure that when tomorrow comes, the data center infrastructure is ready.

That doesn't just mean the buildings; it also means the people who make those buildings work. Google's data center teams combine the IT and facilities management departments under the technical infrastructure group, which means that the people who keep the buildings operating efficiently and the IT staff that keeps the servers running are ultimately on the same team as opposed to being independent factions. So, for Kava, the challenges range from power to people, which requires him to have a set of procedures in place that allow for efficient operations without stifling Google's famous culture of open debate and a willingness to experiment. How does he do it? Documentation, education, and a focus on putting the right people in position to succeed.

Laying The Foundation

Before joining Google, Kava was the COO of data center colocation provider Raging Wire. While at a data center conference, he received a phone call from Google recruiting; some Google employees had been in the audience earlier in the day when he was speaking and had recommended the company recruit him.

He wasn't really looking to leave Raging Wire, but then he spoke to Urs Hölzle, Google's senior vice president of technical infrastructure and a giant in the data center industry.

"After an hour conversation with him, I knew that, one, I wanted to work for Google; and two, this was probably the most brilliant man I'd ever spoken to in my life," Kava says. One thing that impressed Kava was Hölzle's knowledge of the details of data centers and the technology involved, which Hölzle was able to keep up with even as he had climbed to the senior levels of Google leadership. Part of that, of course, is Hölzle's own interest and curiosity in what's new in data centers, but part of it reflects the Google environment, which is weighted heavily towards technical know-how, and knowledge- and data-driven decision making.





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