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“It occurred to me as I was sitting there, angry that I couldn’t get my work done, that I could use the DSL to get back online, and we became the only ones with Internet access,” Andersen says. “I thought about how I could automate that switch-over so, in the case of another outage, our computers would know to connect through the backup line.”
He went on to study how to make the Internet more reliable by overlaying computer networks on top of each other. This work earned him a prize in 2005 for best PhD thesis at MIT in electronic computer and investigation research.
A week after turning in his award-winning dissertation, he joined the computer science faculty at Carnegie Mellon, which he says felt right from the moment he stepped on campus for an interview. “I remember getting on the plane back to Boston and calling my girlfriend at the time to say, ‘I just have to get a job here,’” he recalls. “It was clear to me then that what Carnegie Mellon values in its faculty is whether you have an impact. They don’t do anything silly like count your publications. What the school wants is for you to change the world.”
Toward that end, since his arrival in Pittsburgh, Andersen has been working to develop a framework for building a better Internet of the future. In 2006, he secured a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a prestigious early-career-development grant, to create a more flexible, efficient method for online data transfer. For part of that project, he purchased a bunch of tiny green microprocessors that ended up in his ever-growing stash of spare computer parts. “I’m a huge believer in the motivating power of toys,” he says. “That’s why I always have a stack of old computers and continue buying new toys. It’s a way of coming up with ideas you wouldn’t otherwise dream of.”
Like the idea that occurred to him in 2007 when his PhD students, Amar Phanishayee (CS’12) and Vijay Vasudevan (CS’10, ’11), stopped by for help. Andersen looked at the microprocessors in his desk drawer, and everything came together. He challenged his students to make his vision a reality.
After tinkering with the machines and doing some calculations, they built a barebones prototype. It consisted of eight “nodes,” each made from one of Andersen’s tiny processors and a compact flash card for memory. Flash memory is used to store data in devices like digital cameras instead of the spinning hard drives found in bigger computers. On an impulse, Andersen dubbed the whole system FAWN, or Fast Array of Wimpy Nodes. “I work with Intel, and if you ask someone there about wimpy nodes, they will probably look at you sternly and tell you that Intel doesn’t make anything wimpy,” Andersen says. “I was in search of a good acronym,” he shrugs. “I’m not a marketing person.”
The researchers discovered that FAWN was highly efficient at randomly accessing small bits of information from a larger set of data—the kind of task that many Internet heavyweights rely upon. For instance, when you log onto Facebook, the information the Web site stores on all of its users worldwide must be whittled down to only your friends. To do so, these data-center “brawny” computers consume a lot of power.
FAWN, to the contrary, is quite adroit at this kind of job; remarkably, each wimpy node draws just five watts of energy—less power than a light bulb. Andersen and his team estimated that their system was two to three times more energy efficient than a conventional server at retrieving small tidbits of data like image thumbnails or social-network contact names. That could translate into savings of millions of dollars and sizable cutbacks in carbon emissions—good news for Andersen’s green heart. “Mostly I like the idea of breathing clean air,” he says. “That combines with my engineer’s sensibility that efficiency is a wonderful thing. If by improving our efficiency we can also make our environment better, cleaner, safer for humans, it’s just a total win.”
Andersen and his colleagues presented their results at the 2009 Symposium on Operating Systems Principles—one of two major networking conferences—where they won the best paper award. There, they started to draw a lot of attention from the computing industry.(Continued …)