Facebook in Toronto: Software engineers tell all!


TORONTO – Facebook sent senior members of its software development team to Canada on Thursday to make some new friends in the developer community.

Company officials attended Seneca College’s Free Software and Open Source Symposium to discuss Thrift, a cross-language development environment it launched in April and has opened up to the Web. Thrift is designed to take a single programming language and generate code to create programs that communicate easily and efficiently across many other programming languages, including C++, Java and Python. Facebook is already using Thrift internally to develop many of the features in its popular social networking site, including the News Feed that provides updates on a user’s status and its search engine.

Mark Slee, Facebook’s technical lead, said the company had originally been working in PHP, a server-side embedded HTML scripting language, but eventually concluded it wasn’t doing a good job on some of the site’s more performance-intense functions. Facebook was originally designed on LAMP, an acronym used to describe the open source stack of Linux, the Apache Web sever, the MySQL database and PHP, so it made sense to continue down an open source path.

“Our data centre requirements have gotten bigger and bigger,” said Slee, citing some 2,000 machines that manage the site’s approximately two billion daily page views and 100TB of photo data. “You should be able to use (a programming language) without having to figure out how to make it work with everything else . . . you should be able to just spit out the code you need.”

Slee acknowledged that several Web services standards already exist, including SOAP, CORBA and COM, but said each of these alternatives had shortcomings. SOAP, for example, is tied into too closely to XML, while CORBA “has become sort of bloated,” Slee said.

“There’s still no standard way to do this stuff,” he said. “We just decided, ‘Hey, we’re going to go for it.’”

Google has its own technology, called Protocol Buffers, which can accomplish what Facebook is looking for, but it’s proprietary, Slee added. “It just doesn’t make sense for yet another company to create a development environment that they keep to themselves and then fail to update because nobody has time to work on it.”

Thrift is based around principles of simplicity and clarity within each layer of code, Slee said. So far, he said Thrift allows Facebook developers to write client and server code in as little as five minutes, while eliminating a lot of duplication of effort and maintenance issues.

Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammod in Cambridge, Mass. said Facebook is coming out with Thrift at a time when other approaches, including representational state transfer (REST), are also being used to create Web services. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for new entrants, however.

“People are still evaluating the easiest way to do these things and the way to get the broadest reach,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a particular standard that’s going to dominate in the Web services world.”

David Reiss, a Facebook software engineer, said Thrift has already been picked up by a couple of outside contributors since it was donated to the open source community under a BSD licence. These developers have been creating, among other things, new “language bindings” (which would allow easier reuse of software) for Perl, Ruby and JavaBeans, he said.

“We haven’t super-actively solicited any developers,” Slee said. “Most of it was through a smaller set of close relationships.”

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