Remembering Luiz Barroso: The Man Behind Google’s Expansion

When Google arrived in the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people were instantly captivated by its knack for taking them wherever they wanted to go on the internet. Developed by the company’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the algorithm that drove the site seemed to work like magic.

But as the internet search engine expanded its reach to billions of people over the next decade, it was driven by another major technological advance that was less discussed, though no less important: the redesign of Google’s giant computer data centers. Led by a Brazilian named Luiz Barroso, a small team of engineers rebuilt the warehouse-size centers so that they behaved like a single machine — a technological shift that would change the way the entire internet was built, allowing any site to reach billions of people almost instantly and much more consistently.

Dr. Barroso, who changed the fabric of the internet, died on Sept. 16 at 59. His wife, Catherine Warner, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Before the rise of Google, internet companies stuffed their data centers with increasingly powerful and expensive computer servers, as they struggled to reach more and more people. Each server delivered the website to a relatively small group of people. And if the server died, those people were out of luck.

But Google took a different tack. Working alongside Urs Hölzle, the company’s first vice president of engineering, Dr. Barroso realized that the best way to distribute a wildly popular website like Google was to break it into tiny pieces and spread them evenly across an array of servers. Rather than each server delivering the site to a small group of people, the entire data center delivered the site to its entire audience.

“Large portions of the hardware and software resources in these facilities must work in concert to efficiently deliver good levels of internet service performance,” he and Dr. Hölzle wrote in their seminal textbook, “The Datacenter as a Computer.”

The computer could deliver a website far more efficiently. And if one machine inside the data center died, the others could pick up the slack. Widespread outages became a rarity, especially as Dr. Barroso and his team expanded these ideas across multiple data centers. Eventually, Google’s entire global network of data centers behaved as a single machine.

Luiz André Barroso was born on June 30, 1964, in Rio de Janeiro. His father, Fernando Luiz Barroso, was a surgeon. His mother, Maria Cecilia Bomfim Vellozo, was a professor of marketing.

After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, he enrolled as a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California, studying computer engineering. By the mid-1990s, he was working as a researcher in a San Francisco Bay Area lab operated by the Digital Equipment Corporation, one of the computer giants of the day.

There, he helped create multi-core computer chips — microprocessors made of many chips working in tandem. A more efficient way of running computer software, such chips are now a vital part of almost any new computer.

By the late 1990s, DEC was in decline. In 1998, DEC was acquired by computer maker Compaq. Four years later, Compaq merged with HP. And the leading engineers from DEC’s two research labs — Western Research Lab in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Systems Research Center two block away — soon moved to Google. Luiz Barroso was among them.


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