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Hardware Innovators’ Hidden Role in the Explosion of the Internet
“There are thousands of people at large companies that are driving not only the design of the hardware, but the supply chains behind [it] as well. And if you just look at the financial reporting from these companies, they spend billions and billions of dollars on infrastructure.” — Amir Michael
One day in the early 2000s, Amir Michael, then fresh out of college, answered a job ad on Craigslist. A small company named Google was looking for someone who could repair servers. He had built a few gaming PCs and figured he could handle fixing a server. The company replied, invited him for an interview, and eventually gave him the job.
What was perhaps unclear at the time was that he was joining just as the internet was about to explode, and that the small search engine company would become one of its primary components. A lot of computing infrastructure would have to be built to enable the explosion, and Michael would soon find himself in the middle of it all. After nearly six years as a Google hardware engineer, he joined Facebook, where he led the effort to design the social network’s own custom servers, optimized to do one thing and one thing only: run Facebook and run it as fast and as efficiently as possible.
He was deeply involved in that first explosive phase of the internet’s growth, during which data center hardware was redesigned to support the needs of the massive web services, the size of data centers themselves started to be measured in football fields, and the digital infrastructure industry matured and became recognized as, well, an industry.
In the seventh and final episode of Traceroute, titled Compute, we dive into the evolution of the hardware and data center industry that enabled the massive growth of the internet over the last 20 years.
Today, Michael says, the industry is at another important moment in its development. The rapid innovation in software that took place over the last two decades was possible because of the rapid innovation in hardware. The next big step forward in software will require taking hardware innovation to a whole new level.
“The next thing that's coming up is density,” he says. “I think people are going to try and use a lot more power and put a lot more resources into smaller spaces, which is a challenge as well.”
One way technologists in the space are trying to address the relentless demand for better and better performance is looking for ways to bring more computing power physically closer to users. This demands a different type of approach from simply building massive data centers everywhere.
“If we're not able to figure this out, the amount of innovation we have by being able to cram more compute resources into smaller spaces will start to go away,” Michael says. “And this pace of innovation that we've had will slow down.”
For more on this, listen and subscribe to Traceroute, a podcast that tells the backstory of the internet and digital infrastructure at large, as told by those who built it and those who documented its history: Apple, Spotify, RSS.
Published on24 March 2022
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