Home' Technology Review : March April 2011 Contents Feature Story
technology review March /April 2011
But that isn’t able to happen just yet. Like the steady drip of
a corrosive fluid, repeated encounters with a slow website eat
away at a person’s willingness to use Web apps. Bill Coughran, a
senior vice president of engineering at Google who oversees its
“Make the Web Faster” initiative, says the company fears that the
growth of online services could hit a wall if the Web is “too slow
or too insecure.”
Google’s solution is brilliant and ambitious: speed up the whole
Web—not just the sites Google runs. That means changing many
things that aren’t even in Google’s control—everything from the
way websites are built to the fiber that brings the Internet into peo-
ple’s homes. And it may be more than even Google’s vast resources
and world-class engineers can manage.
The AnATomy of The Web
When people use a website, requests for data have to travel from
the browser on their computers to the servers that host that site.
The servers determine what to send back. The code that describes
how to load the page travels back to the browser; it may include
instructions to fetch certain items, such as images or video, which
require sending even more messages.
Each of these messages involves a complicated, interconnected
nest of hardware and software that is often outdated or poorly
designed, or at the very least congested. The routes go through
various kinds of physical infrastructure, from high-speed lines
that make up the backbone of the Internet to the cables, phone
wires, and wireless signals that deliver a site to its intended user.
Performance problems can happen anywhere in that process.
The servers hosting a site might be slow. The browser might not
handle the code efficiently. The code might be hard to process. On
top of that, the back-and-forth negotiation of sending information
and determining whether it has arrived is governed by protocols
designed decades ago. They were not crafted for the level of speed
and interactivity required by modern Web applications that are
meant to replace software traditionally run on a PC.
People turn out to be sensitive to the slightest delays. An internal
study showed Google that introducing a delay of 100 to 400 milli-
seconds when displaying search results led users to conduct 0.2 to
0.6 percent fewer searches, and the number of searches dropped
ever lower as weeks went by. Once normal speed was restored, it
took time for people to resume their earlier searching habits.
Browsing Web pages “should be like changing the channel on
the TV,” says Arvind Jain, a director of engineering at Google and
the technical lead for the Make the Web Faster initiative. The proj-
ect came about two years ago, at the behest of Google cofounder
Larry Page (who will replace Schmidt as CEO). There are prob-
lems with “every component” of the Web, says Jain, who speaks
with a casual hubris that is quintessentially Google. “We realized
we have to fix all of them.”
The Web in GooGle’s imAGe
To get started, Jain teamed up with a small group, including Richard
Rabbat, who serves as product manager for the initiative. Rabbat
tends to criticize the Internet in a joking tone. But he is as convinced
as Jain that it is unacceptably slow, especially on mobile devices.
Rabbat grew up in Lebanon, where Internet access was limited
by war and a poor economy. As an undergraduate, he shared access
with many other people through a satellite communication system
called a VSAT, or very small aperture terminal. He vividly remem-
bers how much time he spent waiting for pages to load, waiting to
get the information he needed.
When their project began, Rabbat and Jain sat down and
mapped out things Google could do to help make the Web faster
at every level, including the company’s own sites. Expectations at
the top of the company ran high. Leonidas Kontothanassis, tech
lead for Google’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recalls with
a broad grin that three minutes before the team that works on
Google’s ad network headed into a goal-setting meeting one day,
they got a message on an internal planning site. The team had
been looking at ways to make the ad network run twice as fast.
The message indicated that Larry Page wanted to see them make
it 10 times as fast. “We had brainstormed stuff we could do to
make ads faster, but those nice small wins became irrelevant at
that moment,” Kontothanassis recalls. The team had to change
its approach completely, questioning fundamental aspects of the
Internet rather than searching for places to tweak.
Meanwhile, other Google engineers were working on the com-
pany’s Web browser, which is also called Chrome and came out
well before the prototype netbook with the same name. The com-
pany designed and built the browser with an eye to the problems
that have arisen with the popularity of Web applications. Web
niques that engineers have developed in response to demands for
new website capabilities. One of Google’s chief innovations for
than ever before. The browser’s code was opened to the public—
among other reasons, in hopes that people would have ideas for
making it even faster.
Like the steady drip of a
corrosive fluid, repeated
encounters with a slow
website eat away at a person’s
willingness to use Web apps.
Mar11 Feature Google Speed.indd 56
2/8/11 4:21 PM
Links Archive January February 2011 May June 2011 Navigation Previous Page Next Page