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Just how does Facebook store billions of photos?

USC Viterbi professor, who interned with the social networking giant, wants to optimize data storage

Facebook image
Online activity on Facebook produces some firsts for data management and distributed systems. (Image/Michelle Henry)

Since launching in early 2004, Facebook has grown into an online community where 890 million individuals log on each day. People share thoughts, photos, links and videos and like, share and comment on each other’s status updates. Users have uploaded a staggering 250 billion photos, with 350 million new photos each day.

This online activity also produces some firsts for data management and distributed systems. With so many photos, and so many people constantly accessing them, what’s the best way to store them? Questions like these pique the interest of Wyatt Lloyd, assistant professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Because of this giant social network, they’re running into problems people haven’t seen before.

Wyatt Lloyd

“Facebook is the motivation for a lot of research in distributed systems — one computer can only do so much, so very often you need lots of computers,” said Lloyd, part of the school’s Computer Science Department. “Because of this giant social network, they’re running into problems people haven’t seen before, and they’re a huge and successful company, so they’re doing things on a larger scale than anyone has done before.”

Lloyd did an internship with Facebook while finishing his doctorate at Princeton University. He then did postdoctoral research there before coming to USC Viterbi in 2014. His main project focus has been improving photo storage and delivery.

That research involves caches, algorithms and hard drives, among other technical aspects.

Out with the old, in with the new

Lloyd also researched ways to maximize the space Facebook has for images by storing newer photos differently than old photos.

Data storage is referred to with the temperatures hot, warm and cold. “Hot” refers to new, frequently requested information. “Warm” is a bit older and “cold” data needs to be stored, but it doesn’t have to be as readily accessible.

This storage is similar to the ways we keep items in our own homes. Frequently used items are placed on a shelf or table, things we need to have around but don’t use everyday go in the closet and things we need to keep but almost never use go in the attic.

While Facebook is unique in its data storage, the research Lloyd and others conduct won’t just benefit data behemoths.

“The things we’re learning apply to smaller Web services, too,” he said.

And when he’s not researching storage for data that is updating at a high rate, Lloyd really does enjoy being a Facebook user.

“I like Facebook quite a bit,” he said. “I think about Facebook in a technical sense more than I use Facebook because it’s a wonderful motivating news case for tons of things that I think about and work on. But I am definitely a daily active user. I even signed my grandma up on Facebook.”

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Just how does Facebook store billions of photos?

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