Meet Facebook's former cloud fixer

April 3, 2012: 8:24 AM ET

Jonathan Heiliger helped the social network avoid major meltdowns in its crucial early years. Now, he wants to help startups do the same.

FORTUNE -- Late in 2006, Facebook almost melted down. Literally.

With new users joining faster than anyone imagined, Facebooks' servers, packed in a couple of small cages that it rented at a data center in Silicon Valley, were running in overdrive and generating too much heat. So a group of employees at the young startup scattered across the Valley in search of more than two-dozen cooling fans. They found them at local Walgreens (WAG) outlets and managed to install them in the data center just in time to avert a disaster.

Jonathan Heiliger, who joined Facebook a few months later, made sure such near misses wouldn't happen again. Heiliger, who became Facebook's vice president of technical operations, led the development of the social network's infrastructure as it grew from 30 million to more than 800 million users.

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Now Heiliger, who left Facebook late last year, wants to help other successful startups grow without risking meltdown. He is joining North Bridge Venture Partners as a general partner. Besides making investments in promising startups, Heiliger will coach portfolio companies on how to scaletheir infrastructure successfully. "We really needed domain expertise in understanding how these Web businesses scale," says Paul Santinelli, a general partner at the firm.

Heiliger will also invest in startups that focus on Web infrastructure and help to grow North Bridge's presence in Silicon Valley. Until now, the Boston-based venture firm, had just three partners in its Valley office. The firm is currently investing its 2008, $500 million fund, and is expected to raise a new fund soon.

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The task of scaling an Internet business is not nearly as glamorous as, say, coming up with a cool service or building a slick consumer product. But it's an aspect of startup life that entrepreneurs often overlook, sometimes with disastrous results.

Take Friendster. The pioneering social network crumbled under its inability to cope with its own success. As a consequence, Friendster missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity that was later seized by Facebook and is on track to netting tens of billions to investors. It's a fate that Twitter, with its recurrent "fail whale," appears to have averted only narrowly.

Before joining Facebook, Heiliger held executive positions at Walmart.com (WMT) and Danger, which made the once popular Sidekick smartphone and was acquired by Microsoft (MSFT). He also served as chief operating officer at Loudcloud, the company co-founded by Marc Andreessen and acquired by HP (HPQ). Heiliger also had an earlier stint as a tech investor, when he founded the corporate venture group for Global Crossing.

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At Facebook, Heiliger led the growth of the company's infrastructure from a couple of rented cages inside a Santa Clara, California data center, to a global sprawling network that includes two gigantic state-of-the-art facilities that the company built from the ground up in Prineville, Oregon and Forest City, North Carolina. Heiliger also spearheaded the Open Compute Project, which opened up the designs of Facebook's low-cost, high-efficiency servers and those of its data centers, following an open source model. Since leaving Facebook, he has been advising startups like Square and Box.net.

Heiliger says he will be looking at both consumer applications and infrastructure companies. "I have been working on one investment," he said. "It's not ready to come out of the oven yet."

For more on Facebook, read Inside Facebook here or purchase it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here. You can also read it with the iPad app for free if you are a Fortune subscriber.

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About This Author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.


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