The Institute - June 2021 - 57

Society. The award recognizes
contributions to computer and digital
systems architecture.
Early search engine work
Barroso got an interview in 1995 to
work for Digital Equipment Corp.'s
Western Research Laboratory (WRL),
in Palo Alto, Calif.
" There I found some of the top
researchers in computer architecture,
which was my field of study at the
time, " he says. " I had the mentorship,
and I had the resources to begin investigating
how to build hardware to run
more modern applications. "
He explains that in the 1970s and
early '80s, large-scale computers were
designed to run high-performance
number-crunching applications used
for weather forecasting and simulating
nuclear reactions. But in the early 1990s,
demand grew for high-performance
computers capable of running business
applications and Web services.
Barroso researched various workloads
to see how Digital's hardware
could support them.
" One we were investigating was
AltaVista, which was, in some ways,
the world's first bona fide search
engine, " he says. " I didn't know at the
time that I would eventually join the
company that became almost synonymous
with search engines. "
Compaq bought Digital in 1998
and then canceled the microprocessor
project that Barroso had been working
on for more than two years.
Long-term googler
When Barroso joined Google in 2001,
the company-like others-housed its
servers at leased space in third-party
data centers, which were basically
cages in which a few racks of computing
equipment were placed. In 2004,
as the economy recovered from the
dot-com crash, demand began to grow
for space at the facilities. At the same
time, Google's search business was
expanding rapidly, and it recently had
launched its email product, Gmail.
Those services, Barroso says,
required a building's worth of machines
to run. And the hardware and the software
together had to deliver the performance
needed-which he says could
Inside Google's data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
be achieved only by taking a " holistic
approach " to design and deployment.
In other words, he says, " The data
center itself had to be treated as one
massive warehouse-scale computer,
built from the ground up. "
The first such data center, in The
Dalles, Ore., was completed in 2006.
From a sustainability standpoint,
Google's facilities were efficient. The
centers implemented fault-tolerance
software and hardware infrastructure
to make the servers more resilient
against disruption.
" If you offer an Internet service,
people expect it to be up all the time, "
Barroso says.
Data center innovations
Barroso's team explored several areas
for improving efficiency. One was to
allow the data center floor to run at
warmer temperatures-which can
actually help cooling systems run more
efficiently without sacrificing component
reliability, Barroso says.
He is looking for ways to improve
computing efficiency by speeding up
communication. Today's computers
can deal well with events that take
milliseconds, such as accessing a disk
drive or sending a message over the
Internet-or nanoseconds, like loading
a piece of data from main memory.
But more and more events in a data
center are happening at the midrange
microsecond scale, such as sending a
message from one machine inside the
building to another.
" For a collection of servers to
perform better than one server, the efficiency
of the communication between
these servers has to be very high, "
Barroso explains. " You can throw
10 servers instead of one at a problem,
but you may get only two times the
performance improvement if communication
performance is poor. Addressing
that microsecond scale will address the
scalability and, therefore, the efficiency
of data center scale workloads. "
Microsecond time scale events are
a relatively new thing in computing, he
says, and the computer industry has
yet to react to it.
" It hasn't figured out how to make
things like that be efficient, " he says.
" By keeping this issue unaddressed
we hurt the efficiency and the ease of
programmability of big data center
scale workloads. "
Sense of community
Barroso joined IEEE when he was a
graduate student.
" All the clever people I knew were
members of the IEEE, " he says, " so I
decided that if I wanted to behave like
a clever person in college, I should
become an IEEE member. "
JUNE 2021

The Institute - June 2021

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