Google and the wisdom of clouds

Stephen Baker
21 Dec 2007

One simple question. That's all it took for Christophe Bisciglia to bewilder confident job applicants at Google (GOOG). Bisciglia, an angular 27-year-old senior software engineer with long wavy hair, wanted to see if these undergrads were ready to think like Googlers. 'Tell me,' he'd say, 'what would you do if you had 1,000 times more data‾'

What a strange idea. If they returned to their school projects and were foolish enough to cram formulas with a thousand times more details about shopping or maps or"”heaven forbid"”with video files, they'd slow their college servers to a crawl.

At that point in the interview, Bisciglia would explain his question. To thrive at Google, he told them, they would have to learn to work"”and to dream"”on a vastly larger scale. He described Google's globe-spanning network of computers. Yes, they answered search queries instantly. But together they also blitzed through mountains of data, looking for answers or intelligence faster than any machine on earth. Most of this hardware wasn't on the Google campus. It was just out there, somewhere on earth, whirring away in big refrigerated data centers. Folks at Google called it 'the cloud.' And one challenge of programming at Google was to leverage that cloud"”to push it to do things that would overwhelm lesser machines. New hires at Google, Bisciglia says, usually take a few months to get used to this scale. 'Then one day, you see someone suggest a wild job that needs a few thousand machines, and you say: Hey, he gets it.''

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 (IBM), announced in October, to plug universities around the world into Google-like computing clouds.

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.

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