Software

Geek Trivia: A case of whimsy

What unusual materials did Google's founders use to construct the case for the original Google storage assembly?

I'm dedicating this week's Geek Trivia to all the Web-heads out there who know the secret history of Seraphim Proudleduck, the eventual success of a little chunk of software called BackRub, and the comedic potential of the number e. No fair trying to Google the answers, boys and girls, because each of the above subjects is itself an oblique reference to the Don't-Be-Evil Empire we know today as Google.

Since the typical Geek Trivia reader is a total Google addict, you've probably already discovered that Seraphim Proudleduck is an absurdly common term on the Web. That particular nonsensical phrase was the basis of a search engine optimization contest held in late 2004, with the objective being to design a Web page that would return the top Google search result for Seraphim Proudleduck. All of which is to say that Google has become so ingrained into Web culture that people construct contests around its use

As to BackRub? Well, BackRub was Google before Google was Google. That is, BackRub was the original nickname for the Google search technology that Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed as Stanford students. Since the system used backlinks to attribute relevance and prominence to Web sites, Brin and Page thought BackRub was a clever name for the software.

The BackRub-naming logic was probably just the first of many clues to the off-center sense of humor that would come to characterize Google's corporate culture. Take, for example, its notorious love of mathematical in-jokes, especially ones that use above-basic math concepts such as pi and natural log base e.(The latter found a notorious place in Google's infamous IPO filing.)

In addition, buildings on Google's campus bear unusual names, including 0, 1, e, pi, and phi—the last representing the so-called golden ratio that has inspired mathematicians and artists since the days of Pythagoras. And, of course, there's Google's own name, which is a reference to a googol—a one with 100 zeroes behind it (10100).

Still, perhaps no single anecdote from Google's past illustrates its playful nature better than the company's first case mod. BackRub/Google's very first storage assembly was a homemade contraption sporting a case built from a somewhat unlikely—and highly whimsical—choice of materials.

WHAT UNUSUAL MATERIALS DID GOOGLE'S FOUNDERS USE TO CONSTRUCT THE CASE FOR THE ORIGINAL GOOGLE STORAGE ASSEMBLY?

Which somewhat unlikely and highly whimsical building material did Google's founders use to construct portions of the outer case for Google's first storage assembly—a hodge-podge contraption built when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still Stanford students?

A collection of red, yellow, blue, and green Lego building blocks constituted the bulk of the storage assembly, holding twin cooling fans in place and providing a perch for twin Lego "people" to watch over the precious data sequestered inside the device. The blocks' color scheme should sound familiar—it's the same one used in the Google logo. While at Stanford, Page and Brin were notorious Lego fanatics; the former even built a working computer printer entirely out of Lego blocks.

The storage assembly, which built the original BackRub index, required far more capacity than any conventional student project—or commercial product—could procure in 1996. To get the then-staggering 40 gigabytes of necessary capacity, Page and Brin had to lash 10 separate 4-GB hard drives together, and they built the Lego housing to hold their Frankenstein storage system.

The Lego storage assembly stayed in service until 1999, when Google took it offline and donated it to Stanford. Today, the Lego Server resides in Stanford's Computer Science Department as part of a display of landmark computing devices. (Ironically, the Google artifact makes its home in a building named after Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates—but that's a punch line for another day.)

The chronological display makes no explicit mention of the Legos, merely characterizing the housing as a "low-cost cabinet." Of course, considering what the Lego server looked like in its original laboratory setting—surrounded by erratically stacked and cross-linked PCs and equipment—perhaps the more surprising fact isn't that the cabinet was made of Legos, but that it had a housing at all.

Whether the Lego server (or Legos in general) influenced the actual choice and order of colors in the Google logo is a subject of debate. But whatever the case, the original Lego-enclosed storage assembly is undoubtedly a worthy object of techno-historical reverence—and a blockbuster example of computer Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the March 22 edition of Geek Trivia, "Eagles over (Millennium) Falcons." TechRepublic member PatZA disputed my criticism of Han Solo's infamous speed-distance faux pas in the original Star Wars.

"When planning hyperspace trips, you have to plot a course that doesn't fly you too close to strong gravity wells, such as a sun, black holes, etc. The reason for this is that a gravity well will pull you out of hyperspace. And if you pop out of hyperspace too close to a star or some such, your engines may not be strong enough to pull you out.

"Now, the parsec thing comes in with the speed of your craft. Faster craft can travel closer to suns and black holes, as their engines are strong enough to resist the gravity. This is why Solo could do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, as opposed to bulkier, slower craft that would have to take a longer course around the local stars and the Maw. (For those of you who don't know, the Maw is a famous black hole in the Kessel system. Inside was located the Empire's Maw facility, where the Death Star and Sun Crusher were developed.)"

Actually, the Maw is a collection of black holes—otherwise known as the Maw Cluster—which held the Imperial Maw Installation. Kevin J. Anderson first introduced the Maw in his 1994 Star Wars novel Jedi Search. And, besides the fact that I'm not sure black holes exist, it's still an obvious attempt to cover up Solo's idle and technically inaccurate boasting. Keep quibbling, and may The Force be with you.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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