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The Coming Age of Cloud Computing

January 16, 2008


Last October, Steve Lohr reported in the New York Times that Google and IBM were teaming to support research at major universities because they “do not provide the technical training needed for the kind of powerful and highly complex computing Google is famous for.” [“Google and I.B.M. Join in ‘Cloud Computing’ Research,” 8 October 2007]. Lohr reported:

“The two companies are investing to build large data centers that students can tap into over the Internet to program and research remotely, which is called ‘cloud computing.’ Both companies have a deep business interest in this new model in which computing chores increasingly move off individual desktops and out of corporate computer centers to be handled as services over the Internet. Google, the Internet search giant, is the leader in this technology. But companies like Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and Microsoft have built Internet consumer services like search, social networking, Web e-mail and online commerce that use cloud computing. In the corporate market, I.B.M. and others have built Internet services to predict market trends, tailor pricing and optimize procurement and manufacturing. Behind these services are data centers that typically use thousands of processors, store countless libraries of data and engage specialized software to tackle what scientists call Internet-scale computing challenges. This new kind of data-intensive supercomputing often involves scouring the Web and other data sources in seconds or minutes for patterns and insights.”

Lohr’s article leaves the impression that this initiative began following a meeting between the CEOs of Google and IBM.

“The collaboration began after a meeting in December between Eric E. Schmidt, chief executive of Google, and Samuel J. Palmisano, I.B.M.’s chief executive, at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. … Mr. Schmidt recalled that he had sketched out his vision of cloud computing on a whiteboard, emphasizing its potential economic and social importance, and urged the I.B.M. chief to cooperate to build the skills needed.”

Stephen Baker, writing in BusinessWeek, provides a more detailed story behind Google’s and IBM’s collaboration [“Google and the Wisdom of Clouds,” 24 December 2007]. The real instigator was Christophe Bisciglia, a 27-year-old senior software engineer at Google. In interviews with potential employees, Bisciglia would attempt to see if candidates understood the vast scale of computing involved at Google — few could. That started him thinking.

“What recruits needed, Bisciglia eventually decided, was advance training. So one autumn day a year ago, when he ran into Google CEO Eric E. Schmidt between meetings, he floated an idea. He would use his 20% time, the allotment Googlers have for independent projects, to launch a course. It would introduce students at his alma mater, the University of Washington, to programming at the scale of a cloud. Call it Google 101. Schmidt liked the plan. Over the following months, Bisciglia’s Google 101 would evolve and grow. It would eventually lead to an ambitious partnership with IBM, announced in October, to plug universities around the world into Google-like computing clouds.”

Bisciglia had much bigger ideas, however, than a simple graduate course.

“As this concept spreads, it promises to expand Google’s footprint in industry far beyond search, media, and advertising, leading the giant into scientific research and perhaps into new businesses. In the process Google could become, in a sense, the world’s primary computer. ‘I had originally thought [Bisciglia] was going to work on education, which was fine,’ Schmidt says late one recent afternoon at Google headquarters. ‘Nine months later, he comes out with this new [cloud] strategy, which was completely unexpected.’ The idea, as it developed, was to deliver to students, researchers, and entrepreneurs the immense power of Google-style computing, either via Google’s machines or others offering the same service. What is Google’s cloud? It’s a network made of hundreds of thousands, or by some estimates 1 million, cheap servers, each not much more powerful than the PCs we have in our homes. It stores staggering amounts of data, including numerous copies of the World Wide Web. This makes search faster, helping ferret out answers to billions of queries in a fraction of a second. Unlike many traditional supercomputers, Google’s system never ages. When its individual pieces die, usually after about three years, engineers pluck them out and replace them with new, faster boxes. This means the cloud regenerates as it grows, almost like a living thing.”

I can almost hear the mindgears of science fiction writers whizzing furiously! How many Hollywood scripts have revolved around the existence of some supercomputer that gets so large and intelligent that it becomes self-aware and decides it wants to rule the world — “almost like a living thing”? In none of those movies, however, was the “world’s primary computer” named Google. Is this a big deal?

“A move towards clouds signals a fundamental shift in how we handle information. At the most basic level, it’s the computing equivalent of the evolution in electricity a century ago when farms and businesses shut down their own generators and bought power instead from efficient industrial utilities. … Bisciglia’s idea opened a pathway toward this future. ‘Maybe he had it in his brain and didn’t tell me,’ Schmidt says. ‘I didn’t realize he was going to try to change the way computer scientists thought about computing. That’s a much more ambitious goal.’ For small companies and entrepreneurs, clouds mean opportunity—a leveling of the playing field in the most data-intensive forms of computing. To date, only a select group of cloud-wielding Internet giants has had the resources to scoop up huge masses of information and build businesses upon it.”

Bisciglia is certainly a big thinker, but a big thinker with a very human side.

“Changing the nature of computing and scientific research wasn’t at the top of Bisciglia’s agenda the day he collared Schmidt. What he really wanted, he says, was to go back to school. Unlike many of his colleagues at Google, a place teeming with PhDs, Bisciglia was snatched up by the company as soon as he graduated from the University of Washington, or U-Dub, as nearly everyone calls it. He’d never been a grad student. He ached for a break from his daily routines at Google—the 10-hour workdays building search algorithms in his cube in Building 44, the long commutes on Google buses from the apartment he shared with three roomies in San Francisco’s Duboce Triangle. He wanted to return to Seattle, if only for one day a week, and work with his professor and mentor, Ed Lazowska. ‘I had an itch to teach,’ he says.”

Bisciglia also has a lot of nerve. He realized that teaching his class successfully was going to require more resources than just his time.

“How was Bisciglia going to give students access to this machine? The easiest option would have been to plug his class directly into the Google computer. But the company wasn’t about to let students loose in a machine loaded with proprietary software, brimming with personal data, and running a $10.6 billion business. So Bisciglia shopped for an affordable cluster of 40 computers. He placed the order, then set about figuring out how to pay for the servers. While the vendor was wiring the computers together, Bisciglia alerted a couple of Google managers that a bill was coming. Then he ‘kind of sent the expense report up the
chain, and no one said no.'”

Forty computers were nice Bisciglia realized, but they hardly represented much of a cloud. Getting his chain of command to approve dozens of such requests to fit out other universities, he realized, would not be so easy to achieve. That brings us back to that fateful meeting between Eric Schmidt and Sam Palmisano.

“That’s when luck descended on the Googleplex in the person of IBM Chairman Samuel J. Palmisano. This was ‘Sam’s day at Google,’ says an IBM researcher. The winter day was a bit chilly for beach volleyball in the center of campus, but Palmisano lunched on some of the fabled free cuisine in a cafeteria. Then he and his team sat down with Schmidt and a handful of Googlers, including Bisciglia. They drew on whiteboards and discussed cloud computing. It was no secret that IBM wanted to deploy clouds to provide data and services to business customers. At the same time, under Palmisano, IBM had been a leading promoter of open-source software, including Linux. This was a key in Big Blue’s software battles, especially against Microsoft. If Google and IBM teamed up on a cloud venture, they could construct the future of this type of computing on Google-based standards, including Hadoop. … In the course of that one day, Bisciglia’s small venture morphed into a major initiative backed at the CEO level by two tech titans. By the time Palmisano departed that afternoon, it was established that Bisciglia and his IBM counterpart, Dennis Quan, would build a prototype of a joint Google-IBM university cloud.”

This is a great story — a big idea, a lot of hard work, and a little luck collided to create a collaboration that could ripple through the IT sector for decades. I’m glad Baker dug beneath the story of the meeting between two corporate management giants to find — as radio celebrity Paul Harvey would say — the rest of the story.

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