Deep inside Facebook’s very first data center, located in a sprawling facility in the hills of Prineville, OR, lies a series of about 60 server racks. Each one houses 32 smartphones, all of which are running a version of one of Facebook’s many mobile apps. The company calls this setup the Mobile Device Lab, and it’s designed to test Facebook’s software on older phones to discover whether any bit of a new code, no matter how minor, results in a dip in performance or poorer battery life. For those smartphone owners who tote around a two- or even three-year-old device — and users in developing countries purchasing lower-cost devices for the first time — the lab is the very reason Facebook is still a viable home screen staple.
Antoine Reversat, part of Facebook’s production engineering team, opens one of the racks for a group of reporters during its first Oregon data center tour in almost three years this week. Behind a large black metal door sit 32 iPhone 5C devices all in the process of either scrolling through the News Feed, testing various operations’ lag on battery consumption, or rebooting to resume an identical state before running yet another test. In each server row sits more than a dozen racks, some holding devices as old as the iPhone 4 and others housing newer Google Nexus 5s. In total, Facebook has almost 2,000 handsets used to tell developers when they’ve screwed something up, and whether that degradation is only noticeable on an older phone.
Facebook’s mobile device lab is the reason its apps keep functioning on older phones
With Facebook serving more than 1.65 billion users around the world, taking into account every variation in device type, mobile operating system, and network condition has become an increasingly complex operation. Entire companies have built robust operations around testing mobile software in similar fashion, and some of those startups have been scooped up by big-name competitors. In 2014, Google bought San Francisco-based mobile app tester Appurify. Facebook’s engineers, on the other hand, figured the company could do the job itself, especially considering it had the computing power and server rack space at its expansive Oregon data center.
The concept started at Facebook as a program called CT-Scan. The service, developed internally last year, tests any app changes to see how they affect products like Facebook Messenger and Instagram. It looks over any new code submitted by engineers and analyzes whether it has a negative impact on how the app utilizes phone memory, how fast users can scroll through a feed, and battery consumption.
CT-Scan worked great for engineers who kept a single device at their desks, but it could not cover an ever-growing number mobile OS versions and device types. So Facebook’s production engineering team, led in part by Reversat, decided to move away from single-device tests and even opted against relying on software simulation. “For example, we wouldn’t be able to track down a 1 percent performance regression in a simulator,” Reversat explains. “So we opted for on-device testing.”
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