Cows and data centers: What HP’s chief engineer thinks about fusing the real world with technology

Chandrakant Patel has a deep history working on hardware and fundamental science at Hewlett-Packard, and he has used that background to create a vision for the future of technology that combines the physical and digital worlds.

He hopes to inspire his fellow HP colleagues and the rest of the tech world on a new decades-long path. Patel is a senior fellow and the chief engineer at Hewlett-Packard. That’s an important and rare position, as HP has more than 50,000 employees in 170 countries, with many thousands of engineers. I met Patel at the 50th anniversary of HP Labs in Palo Alto, and we caught up for an interview after that event at a very special place for HP employees: the original garage at a home on Addison Street in Palo Alto, Calif., where HP was born in 1939.

Patel’s job is to inspire HP’s engineers to be creative when thinking about the big technology problems they must overcome. After all, Moore’s Law — or doubling the number of transistors on a chip every couple of years — doesn’t just happen. It is the result of a lot of smart people figuring out the toughest technical problems of the day. Patel believes that we still have to figure out a much more energy efficient world network, with intelligent devices at the edge that don’t drain resources out of the data centers.

We talked about why he chose to stay with the PC and printer maker, HP, rather than HP Enterprise, the services company, after last year’s split-up. And we reminisced about HP’s past, including the creation of its first computer 50 years ago this week. Patel is very passionate about how students should study the fundamentals of science — and both hardware and software — to prepare themselves for the age of the Internet of Things. He prefers to call this the “cyber physical” applications, which expose the seams between hardware and software, between the real world and the digital.

We chatted there so that we could get inspired about the history of technology and where it’s going in the future. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. I’ve also added many of Patel’s slides, as he loves to paint his ideas of the future by making sketches.

Above: The future is cyber physical.

Image Credit: HP

Chandrakant Patel: I’m a mechanical engineer. I started at an interesting time in Silicon Valley. My first interview was with a company called Dysan. It was on Patrick Henry Drive. Patrick Henry was brand new. Now the stadium is very close to it. They were making disks. Heads and media were done here. I got a job at Memorex, where Nvidia is now located.

A long time ago, Memorex had that commercial – “Is it live or is it Memorex?” Ella Fitzgerald would shatter a glass with the frequency of her voice. They’d copy it to a Memorex tape, and then playing back the tape would shatter the glass too.

The reason it’s important to me is it was a prime time commercial. People understood why the glass broke. People understood physical fundamentals, back in the early ‘80s. I found myself in what I called the “valley of tinkerers.” Memorex had its share. Al Shugart, Finis Conner. They went on to create Seagate. We had manufacturing and design there.

I was making drives where the mass was 100 kilograms. A gigabyte would cost $100,000 and it was the size of a washing machine. Because the mass was very high and the stiffness was low, the frequency, the characteristic frequency of the drive was low. Low-frequency vibrations could damage it. As mechanical engineers we had interesting problems to solve.

VentureBeat: It was an age of physical hardware.

Patel: Very much so. Understanding how physical hardware worked. Discs were rotating at 3600 RPM, 32 heads, how do you keep them flying? Then one thing I noticed was, as the hardware got smaller, the drives got smaller, I felt the stiffness was going up. The mass went down. The ratio of stiffness to mass goes down and the natural frequency goes up. They’re less susceptible to those low-frequency vibrations. It was simple first-order fundamentals-based thinking to see that drives would be commoditized.

I reset myself, after working on large drives and small drives. I joined HP Labs in 1991 to work on the PA-RISC chip. We were going from wire bonds to the flip chip to get a lot more I/Os out of the chip. I established the chip packing and thermal management. I did a lot of work on electronics cooling. That’s when I got to know Bill. Subsequently I felt that chips would come from one or two places. As you scale down you need volume.

Chandrakant Patel is an HP senior fellow and chief engineer. He is standing at HP's original garage headquarters.

Above: Chandrakant Patel is an HP senior fellow and chief engineer. He is standing at HP’s original garage headquarters.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I moved out into systems, working on large-scale systems like Superdome, the supercomputer-class systems we were building. In the mid-’90s I went to my boss and said, “The data center is the computer. The building is the computer.” I filled a room with racks that I said would be about 10 kilowatts, filled with industry-standard components. Now the building is the value add, not the servers. If the networking, the cooling, the power—power, ping, and pipe. Those three Ps would determine the data center and the total cost of ownership of a data center is driven by energy.

My boss said, “Why do you want to work on facilities?” My contention was, it’s Carnegie Hall with 150 people per seat. A person is 100 watts. A rack would be 15 kilowatts. That’s 150 people in a seat. Imagine that. You have to deal with fluid flow and so on. We created the smart data center project. We build a data center with sensors and controls. We built the dynamic control systems for it. We were the first ones to do that.

We went on to build eco parts. That started because of a conversation with a customer of ours. The customer had underground mines. My recommendation was to put data centers in containers and lower them into the ground. The region where they were, the ground was nine degrees Celsius. I said, “Let’s dump heat into the ground.” That didn’t happen. I wish it had, but the dot-com boom and bust happened at that moment. Otherwise that would have been one of the most secure places in the world.

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