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Each Facebook Chat user now needs to be notified whenever one of his/her friends (a) takes an action such as sending a chat message or loads a Facebook page (if tracking idleness via a last-active timestamp) or (b) transitions between idleness states (if representing idleness as a state machine with states like "idle-for-1-minute", "idle-for-2-minutes", "idle-for-5-minutes", "idle-for-10-minutes", etc.).
For Facebook Chat, we rolled our own subsystem for logging chat messages (in C ) as well as an epoll-driven web server (in Erlang) that holds online users' conversations in-memory and serves the long-polled HTTP requests.
The results of inevitable programming bugs, hardware failures, et al., should be hidden from the user as much as possible and isolated from the rest of the system.
The way this is typically accomplished in a web application is by separating the model and the view: data is persisted in a database (perhaps with a separate in-memory cache), with each short-lived request retrieving only the parts relevant to that request.
Unlike a three-guys-in-a-garage startup, we don't have the luxury of scaling out infrastructure to keep pace with user growth; when your feature's userbase will go from 0 to 70 million practically overnight, scalability has to be baked in from the start.
The project I'm currently working on, Facebook Chat, offered a nice set of software engineering challenges: The most resource-intensive operation performed in a chat system is not sending messages.