Lessons from the creator of the “datacenter as a computer” concept, who died this month

Montagem com foto de reprodução LinkedIn
Sheila Zabeu -

September 27, 2023

Brazilian engineer Luiz André Barroso, who designed Google’s modern datacenters, died on 16 September at the age of 59; he had worked for the company for 22 years. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet and its subsidiary Google, mourned the death in a post on X (formerly Twitter), saying that Barroso was behind many of Google’s technical achievements, including the company’s datacenters, about which he even wrote a book.

“Luiz saw beauty in everything, whether it was the architecture of a shed, a chord or the wing of a hyacinth macaw. I’ll miss our chats about nature, music and football, especially Brazil and Barcelona. Rest in peace, my friend,” said the executive.

According to an article in Wired, Barroso had never designed a datacenter until he received this request from Google. He came up with the concept of “datacenter as a computer”, building data centres with low-cost components, as we know them today. In a 2021 article on his website, in which he acknowledges having received the ACM-IEEE CS Eckert-Mauchly Award, 2020 edition, for his pioneering work in warehouse-scale computer design and for bringing the concept into practice, Barroso comments that his experience with software development proved extremely useful in the challenge of creating a new computing environment.

“My understanding of Google’s software stack was essential for architecting the hardware needed to run it. I published some of these early insights into the architecture requirements for Google workloads in an IEEE Micro article in 2003,” Barroso explains in the article.

He comments that the lack of experience in datacenter design may have been an advantage, as we questioned almost every aspect of how these facilities were designed. Perhaps the most important thing was having the opportunity to look at the entire design, from the cooling towers to the compilers, and this quickly revealed important opportunities for improvement. Barroso’s idea quickly spread throughout Silicon Valley, among the datacenters of other Internet giants.

At the end of the article, Barroso shared three lessons he learnt in the first half of his career:

1. Consider the winding road: Although there are always risks when embarking on something new, the upside of being adventurous in your professional career can be incredibly rewarding.

2. Develop respect for the obvious: Big problems and important issues have one characteristic in common: they tend to be simple to understand but difficult to solve. They are obvious and deserve attention.

3. Even success has an expiry date: Some of the most intellectual moments in Barrosa’s career came when he was forced to abandon his original position, in which he had invested significant time and effort and achieved some success.

Barroso was also responsible for developing the Covid exposure notification application, acting as a mediator between internal teams and external partners.

Barroso was born in Brazil and had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. In the United States, he did a doctorate in computer engineering at the University of Southern California and worked with processors at Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation. In 2001, he joined Google as a software engineer.

In 2023, he joined the Board of Directors of Stone, a Brazilian financial services and online payment company. He was also a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 2013 to 2019, he was a member of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the US National Academies.

He enjoyed observing and photographing wildlife, as well as being passionate about music. He accompanied his wife, singer-songwriter Catherine Warner, on guitar and recorded an album of American and Brazilian songs from the 1930s to the 1950s alongside musicians Zeca Assumpção and Sergio Reze.