From his ninth-floor office in downtown Seattle, Hewlett-Packard's cloud computing outpost, Bill Hilf can see the Space Needle, Pike Street Market and the future of computing.
"There's two security companies setting up over there," says Hilf, vice-president of cloud product management at HP, pointing east. Towards the waterfront is Blue Box, a cloud hosting company. South, in Pioneer Square, is a cloud engineering outpost of EMC, a data storage giant, as well as lots more start-ups.
“It’s like Detroit used to be for car companies,” he says. “The galactic players are here, and they are creating lots of little companies. The only thing driving anyone away from here is the weather.”
Rain or shine, Seattle has quickly become the centre of the most intensive engineering in cloud computing: the design and management of global-scale data centres. Last year, Hilf was hired from Microsoft’s giant cloud business, Azure, to spearhead HP’s efforts to build its own cloud service (based in Seattle, not at HP’s home in Silicon Valley, California), and build technology for other cloud companies.
It was a 13-minute drive from Microsoft to his new office. Amazon Web Services, the biggest of the cloud companies, is a six-minute walk from HP, in downtown Seattle. North, in the Fremont district, Google has 1,000 engineers working on its cloud system. In Kirkland, Washington, near Microsoft, there is another Google facility.
It is too early to say if this concentration of big engineering talent is sustainable over the long haul and whether it will evolve into a flywheel of innovation like Silicon Valley. For now, however, it appears to be attracting a lot of money and talent, eager to grow in the cloud.
“I could be completely wrong, but it seems like the valley is focusing on consumer stuff, like search and social, while we’re building infrastructure, things that are a lot harder to learn,” sa
ys Jared Wray, chief technology officer of cloud at CenturyLink, a large provider of internet connectivity to business. "There's a generational change."
Last November, Wray’s company, a provider of cloud computing services to small- and mid-sized businesses called Tier 3, was bought by CenturyLink for an undisclosed sum. “We’ve grown the engineering team 20 per cent, to 100 people, since then,” Wray says. “They want to have 400.”
Besides talent that knows how to build infrastructure, Seattle has a number of leading cloud software companies. Tableau Software, a leader in the computer visualisation of large sets of data, is across the street from Google in Fremont. Concur, used for online expense forms, is in Bellevue, Washington, near Microsoft Azure. Other companies include Chef, which produces open-source cloud automation software; Apptio, a cloud monitoring company, and Socrata, which stores and publishes more than 100,000 data sets for 150 government organisations.
"It's a little more collaborative than the valley, because we still have lots of hard problems to solve in cloud computing," says Kevin Merritt, founder and chief executive of Socrata.
The roots of Seattle’s strength in cloud computing, observers say, goes back to the mid-1990s, when Microsoft, long the sole big power in Seattle tech, began doing extensive work in distributed computing, or making computers work together in problem solving. That concept is the root of what cloud computing is today: lots of computer servers working together for various tasks.
Several Microsoft veterans played key roles building out Amazon's cloud. In particular, James Hamilton, a former database specialist, is credited with making cloud computing far less expensive.
Another factor is the growing presence of the University of Washington’s computer science department, now considered a leader in distributed computing.
"There's an argument that Seattle owns the cloud now," says Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at the university. "Universities are always part of the axis", in building out a regional tech centre, he says.
The university, which awards about 250 computer science degrees a year, is now working on courses in machine learning, which is how computers, particularly in the cloud, study and adapt based on big streams of data.
"The cloud and big data are closely connected," Lazowska says. "We're incredibly lucky to be in Seattle." – (© 2014 New York Times News Service)