TechFest: Immersed in Innovation

 I just returned from visiting Microsoft’s TechFest, an annual event in which Microsoft’s research labs come together to present their most promising new research findings. Microsoft has a big research program—over 850 researchers on six campuses worldwide.

I was interested to observe the progress being made in how people interface with and use computers. There are many alternatives arising to the traditional keyboard/mouse model, including greatly improved speech recognition and speech-to-text capabilities. One demonstration focused on computers that can respond to spoken commands while you are driving, recognizing human language to perform tasks such as sending/receiving SMS text messages, playing songs, and placing phone calls. Check out this video of a virtual receptionist that can recognize spoken requests for help. Another demonstration used a web camera to recognize letters and gestures written in the air, and translate those to text or computer actions.

My main interest, however, was in data center and network technologies. The old data center model, with its rigid topology and high fixed costs for cooling, power and management overhead, is rapidly being replaced by the cloud. Cloud computing is everyone’s favorite new buzzword, but it is not just hype, it represents a very different business and technical shift that is radically reshaping our industry. A paper from the University of California at Berkeley explains the value of cloud computing this way:

Cloud Computing, the long-held dream of computing as a utility, has the potential to transform a large part of the IT industry, making software even more attractive as a service and shaping the way IT hardware is designed and purchased. Developers with innovative ideas for new Internet services no longer require the large capital outlays in hardware to deploy their service or the human expense to operate it. They need not be concerned about overprovisioning for a service whose popularity does not meet their predictions, thus wasting costly resources, or underprovisioning for one that becomes wildly popular, thus missing potential customers and revenue. Moreover, companies with large batch-oriented tasks can get results as quickly as their programs can scale, since using 1000 servers for one hour costs no more than using one server for 1000 hours. This elasticity of resources, without paying a premium for large scale, is unprecedented in the history of IT.

At TechFest, I saw many new developments that will help realize the promise of cloud computing: cheaper, low-powered processors, computers that require significantly less cooling, greatly simplified networks within the data center. Other vendors, such as Sun Microsystems, are producing blackbox data centers, which are sealed, self-contained data centers in shipping containers. These “data centers in a box,” can be assembled like Legos to create larger data centers as needed. The result of all these and other advances will be data centers that run at a fraction of today’s costs, scale and shrink capacity on demand, and are resilient in times of disaster or continuity of operations situations.

We will need all these innovations to stay in front of the growing demand for electrical power supply to the data center. Today’s largest data centers can only be built in select geographical locations, because they draw so much power they must be situated near a large power source such as a hydroelectric power plant. Longer-term, our innovative capabilities will certainly be tested to solve this strategic challenge, but from what I observed this week, there is much reason for optimism.