"We're in a world where people's expectations about what
they can get access to are continuously increasing. And that's
a good thing," says John Wilkes, technical lead of HP Labs' Storage Systems Group.
Wilkes, who was recently named an HP Fellow, is explaining the vision behind his team's work.
"We want to give people more information, in a more
digestible form and in a way that's more accessible,"
One way to do that, Wilkes believes, is to be smarter about
the way we create, configure and manage the data storage that
is an essential part of any computer system.
In particular, Wilkes and his team have been working on making
large-scale, multi-terabyte online storage systems much easier
to manage. Their idea is that the storage system should essentially
This would mean that the people in charge of the system could
concentrate on making business decisions, rather than continuously
reacting to events from the storage system. It also would
relieve them of the need to understand all the
tradeoffs inherent in these complex systems -- they could
focus on what they wanted the system to do, rather than the
details of how the task was achieved.
For example, if you travel from San Francisco to Boston to
present complex information stored on your office computer,
your data goes with you. When you arrive in Boston, your data
has been automatically transferred to a nearby server.
trading storage capacity
Taking the concept a level deeper, Wilkes and his team now
envision a world in which storage and computation resources
are assets that companies trade. He sees computer systems
negotiating those trades with each other automatically.
The same ideas can be applied to computation, he suggests.
"You could imagine a situation where you didn't buy quite
enough in-house capacity for a particular crunch you've got
coming, but it turns out that one of your partner sites has
just completed a compute-intensive design project and now
they have spare capacity," Wilkes suggests. "Yes,
they're in France, but the system can address all your data
movement, security and trust concerns."
shared storage model
This vision of how storage will work in the future is substantially
informed by one of the ideas for which Wilkes is best known
-- automatic storage management. Wilkes views HP as being on a road to a future in which computer systems do
more work for us by themselves, and need less care and feeding
"Perhaps this is the defining thrust of my research,"
he says, pointing to the work of the storage systems group,
which has been exploring this idea since 1995.
The complexity of modern computer and storage systems often
threatens to overwhelm users. To address that, Wilkes led
the development of the SNIA Shared Storage Model to bring some order and structure
to the design space. He created the model in his capacity
as a member of the Technical Council of the Storage
Networking Industry Association (SNIA).
"The idea was to organize and describe a lot of the
things that were taking place in the field," he explains.
The result was a way of thinking about storage that could
provide a "map" of almost all the storage system
designs being deployed, which in turn allowed vendors and
buyers of storage products to see where they fit in the rapidly
changing world of computer storage.
"The model's meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive,"
says Wilkes. "It's a tool. We've used it in explaining
how what we do fits into the world we see, and we are starting
to see both storage companies and customers doing the same."
doing world-class work
Wilkes' work with professional bodies like the SNIA and the
Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) -- he was recently
named an ACM Fellow -- has allowed him to keep in touch with
the more academic side of computer research.
"One of the beauties of HP Labs," he says, "is you have a chance to have a
foot in both camps. I also get to be an adjunct faculty at
Carnegie Mellon University, which means I have an absolute
blast working with these very, very bright people who are
exploring wonderfully far-flung ideas."
It works the other way, too. Wilkes sees outside affiliations
as a way to help HP Labs
retain its status as a world-class research institution.
"Life is too short to be doing things that are not world
class," he argues. "And how do you know if you are
doing that kind of work? One way is to take advantage of the
academic peer review process. So we aim to publish in places
where the best people are publishing because we want to get
labs a good fit
This kind of attitude, and the high profile he enjoys within
the storage industry, go a long way to explaining why HP recently decided to make John Wilkes an HP Fellow.
A Brit who came to HP's Palo Alto lab straight from his PhD
work in Cambridge, England, Wilkes has just marked his 20th
year with HP Labs. It's clearly a place that suits him well.
"I like HP's style," he says. "It has a corporate
culture that basically values its people and it does what
it can to try and embody that in the way that it does things."
"I'm not a great believer in hierarchies," Wilkes
adds. Indeed, until he was made a Fellow, he never printed
a title on his business card. "Labs happens to fit my
slightly anarchic makeup. Besides, it's fun."
keeping the brain cycling
Finding the fun in tough challenges is another key to Wilkes'
success, something that he extends into his pursuits outside
He's recently qualified for his pilot's license and spends
one night a week learning the art of pottery. He's also interested
in Gothic architecture, hosting the Web site of a group of
fellow enthusiasts at his HP web page.
"With Gothic architecture and art," Wilkes explains,
"you can get quite intense about looking at things and
understanding what's in front of you in a different way from
technical things. Pottery is a very different non-mental concentration;
I find it relaxing -- and frustrating in new ways, too. And
the flying is this nice combination of intellectual and physical
activity. A lot of brain cycles are required."
Wilkes foresees plenty to keep his brain cycling in his future
at HP Labs.
Clearly relishing the thought, he looks forward to being
able to work with his team on "a never ending stream
of exciting problems, problems whose value you can see. They're
not just abstract problems, but ones where you can see how
if this were solved, things would get better."
by Simon Firth