EletiofeGoogle Mourns Veteran Engineer Luiz André Barroso Who Invented...

Google Mourns Veteran Engineer Luiz André Barroso Who Invented the Modern Data Center

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Luiz André Barroso had never designed a data center before Google asked him to do it in the early 2000s. By the time he finished his first, he had overturned many conventions of the computing industry, laying the foundations for Silicon Valley’s development of cloud computing.

Barroso, a 22-year veteran of Google who unexpectedly died on September 16 at age 59, built his data centers with low-cost components instead of expensive specialized hardware. He reimagined how they worked together to develop the concept of “the data center as a computer,” which now underpins the web, mobile apps, and other internet services.

Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of Google’s infrastructure organization, says Barroso left an indelible imprint at the company whose contributions to the industry are countless. “We lost a beloved friend, colleague and respected leader,” she writes in a statement on behalf of the company. 

Barroso continued to lead major projects at Google, including development of its Covid exposure notifications app, for which he served as a mediator across teams within the company and with outside partners. In an email Fitzpatrick sent to Google staff seen by WIRED, she wrote that it’s understood Barroso died from natural causes.

Fitzpatrick says Barroso’s family, which includes his wife Catherine Warner, a singer for whom he sometimes played guitar, is seeking privacy.  The cause of death could take weeks to determine, according to the medical examiner’s office of Santa Clara County, in Silicon Valley.

Barroso had wanted to be an electrical engineer since his childhood days in Brazil, where he got into amateur radio with his grandfather and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. He came to the US for a doctorate in computer architecture from the University of Southern California and worked on chips at Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation. But he came to Google in 2001 wanting to focus on software engineering.

Barroso wasn’t a coder for long—the then small startup’s few employees had to pitch in wherever help was needed. Three years after joining Google, Urs Hölzle, the company’s first vice president of engineering, tasked Barroso with rebuilding the company’s infrastructure. “I was the closest thing we had to a hardware person,” Barroso recalled to WIRED in 2012.

When he took on the infrastructure gig, internet businesses such as Google typically hosted their websites on servers in data centers maintained by another company. But these vendors couldn’t handle the surging search startup’s growing needs.

Barroso’s inexperience in data center design helped lead him to reinventing it, he wrote in an essay and recalled during a podcast in 2021. He found himself asking “Wait, wait, wait, but why are we doing it this way?” Barroso said on the podcast. “And it just turns out that the people who had been living in that area hadn’t really thought about questioning that. And sometimes it’s something that was based on a good reason three years ago, and that reason had a sell-by date, and it’s time to do something else.”

Google’s first data center consisted of 40-foot, server-filled shipping containers, which enabled advanced cooling and fewer construction headaches. It opened its own data center campus in Oregon in 2006, resembling the conventional bland, boxy, and massive buildings that now dot the world. But Barroso’s ideas made the insides exceptional.

He and his Google colleagues turned away from the then standard approach of centralizing key software in a data center on a few expensive and powerful machines. Instead they began distributing Google’s programs across thousands of cheaper, mid-grade servers. That saved money spent on pricey hardware while also saving energy and allowing software to run more nimbly.

Barroso laid out his new philosophy in The Datacenter as a Computer, a book he coauthored with Hölzle that became a seminal text on modern computing infrastructure. “We must treat the data center itself as one massive warehouse-scale computer,” the book says.

The efforts of Barroso’s “speed-up” team, as he liked to call it, paid off for Google and helped establish its reputation as not just a neat search engine but also a place that broke new ground in computing. By customizing nearly every inch of Google’s data centers and the hardware within them, including power supplies and cooling kits, the search giant could deliver results, emails, and other services faster—even as the “slow-down” teams integrated more algorithms and features.

“It’s easy to forget just how crazy the amount of computational data is required to be able to give you a new result every 20 milliseconds or something,” he told WIRED’s Steven Levy in 2012. “We’re essentially searching our web corpus, our images corpus, you name it, every time you do a keystroke.”

Barroso’s ideas spread quickly across Silicon Valley. Meta and other internet giants adopted an approach similar to Google’s for their data centers. The architecture Barroso devised became the basis for Google’s cloud computing unit, which now accounts for about 10 percent of the company’s overall revenue.

Over the past decade, Barroso helped start the team that designed Google’s AI chips known as TPUs; led engineering for Google’s “geo” services, including the infusion of augmented reality and machine learning into Maps; and founded Google’s core unit, which manages software and other tools used across the company. He held the title of Google fellow, the company’s highest rank for technical staff. In 2020, he received the Eckert Mauchly award from the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his contributions to computer architecture.

Barroso recently joined the board of Stone, an ecommerce company in Brazil, where the engineer was born and where he successfully pushed Google to hire more. Stone wrote in a disclosure to investors this week that Barroso “made significant contributions to our technology team and overall strategy” and that “our hearts and thoughts are with [Barroso’s] family, friends, and colleagues.” A spokesperson for the company declined further comment.

Barroso was also active in environmental projects. He served on the board of Rainforest Trust, a nonprofit for whom he organized and led a weeklong trip to Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands last month. He also expressed concern about the cryptocurrency industry’s thirst for electricity. Barroso had been executive sponsor for Google’s Hispanic and Latinx employee group and a program awarding fellowships to doctoral students in Latin America.

Despite all his technical achievements, Barroso told WIRED in 2012 that mentoring interns was “probably the thing I’m best at.” Google chief scientist Jeff Dean, who brought Barroso to Google in 2001 with interviews over crème brûlée, tweeted on Monday without naming his onetime research partner, “Sometimes close friends and colleagues leave us altogether too soon.”

Additional reporting by Steven Levy.

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