Why Moving Instagram to Facebook’s Data Center Was Worth It

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Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has quietly migrated Instagram and its 20 billion photos from Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) cloud computing service to its own data center. The transition took about a year in planning and a month for the actual migration, and Instagram’s 200 million users didn’t notice a thing.

Wired reports that the company calls the transition the “Instagration,” and the migration was unlike any that Facebook had previously undertaken. In moving other properties that it had acquired, like FriendFeed, Facebook was able to shut down the service before migrating it to its own data centers.

But moving Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, was a much bigger operation. The process involved moving the service from thousands of virtual machines on Amazon’s cloud computing service, where it was originally built, to a private data center operated by Facebook, all while avoiding disruptions to a service used by 200 million people. According to Wired, the move gives Instagram access to the wide range of software tools built into Facebook’s infrastructure.

The migration sets the precedent for the potential integrations of apps and services that Facebook may acquire in the future. In simple terms, the Instagration was made possible by an Amazon service called the Virtual Private Cloud, which enabled a 20-person team to effectively make a copy of Instagram’s underlying software at the Facebook data center. Once that copy was in place, the team was able to use a private network that included the entire data center, plus the Instagram operation on Amazon’s cloud, to securely transfer the data.

But, as Wired reports, the migration wasn’t quite that straightforward: there were several intermediate steps involved. Before moving Instagram to Facebook, and before Instagram was even on Amazon’s Virtual Private Cloud, the team first had to move Instagram from another part of the Amazon cloud, Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing service, to the Virtual Private Cloud in order to retain control over the Internet addresses used by the machines running Instagram.

That move was complex because Amazon doesn’t actually offer a way to move a property from EC2 to the Virtual Private Cloud. Facebook had to build its own networking tool, which it calls Neti, to transfer Instagram to the Virtual Private Cloud and then go through the process of, finally, transferring all of Instagram’s data to the software running at Facebook’s facility.

All of the data had been transferred to Facebook’s facility by the end of April. The company says a widespread outage in the middle of the month was unrelated to the migration, and that the Instagration happened without users knowing what was going on. Instagram now runs more efficiently, using one server in Facebook’s facility for every three it used on the Amazon cloud.

Instagram is also connected to Facebook’s infrastructure for analyzing large amounts of data, and can benefit from other tools that Facebook has built, like one to identify and block spam. However, Instagram won’t share its data with Facebook, and VentureBeat reports that a user’s activity on Instagram won’t influence Facebook’s tracking or advertising.

So what does this mean, other than that Facebook moved all of your Instagram selfies and snapshots without you noticing? First, it means that Instagram will be able to use the tools Facebook uses across its online empire, possibly leading into advertising playing a more important role on Instagram. But more than that, the migration exemplifies how companies like Instagram are increasingly building their operations in the cloud, and in the case of large companies or those that see a lot of growth, moving from managed cloud services to their own data centers will become an increasingly popular option.

The lengths to which Facebook went to move Instagram from Amazon’s cloud service to its own data center is also a great, if rather extreme, example of how companies can make big gains in efficiency when they build their own infrastructure with efficiency in mind, as Facebook has with the open source hardware in its data centers. As Forbes recently reported, the need for inexpensive, energy-efficient servers and network equipment led Facebook to develop the standards of the Open Compute Project, which resulted in Facebook’s data center running 38 percent more efficiently and being 24 percent less expensive than the typical data center, according to the project’s website.

So while Facebook made sure not to disrupt users with its migration of Instagram, its standards for data center infrastructure could disrupt the industry and lead more companies to build less expensive, more efficient private data centers and move their operations away from managed cloud services.

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