Engineering Faster Searches

From Inside USD -- Web searches on Microsoft’s Bing engine are about to get a lot faster and a USD engineering graduate played a huge role in the effort.

The rate at which new computer generations are improving performance has slowed considerably so officials at Bing turned to Microsoft Research to find a way to provide Bing with a big leap in capabilities. Andrew Putnam, who graduated in 2003 with a triple major in electrical engineering, computer science and physics, was the lead engineer on “Project Catapult.”

Instead of Christmas shopping late last year, he and his manager, Doug Burger, spent hours drawing up a prototype of a new system that would give Bing the performance boost it needed by using a specialized type of chip, Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). They made several different designs to implement circuits that perform Bing’s page ranking algorithm and also designed FPGA cards that fit into conventional data center servers, a huge engineering task in its own right which involved Putnam spending four months in Asia.

“The results were fantastic,” Putnam said. “The custom circuits double the number of queries that each server can process and reduce the time needed for page ranking by 30 percent. This mean Bing can do all of the page ranking with half the number of servers and that the developers have additional time to spend improving the relevance of each search.”

Microsoft plans to introduce Bing servers powered with the new FPGA chips to process customer searches early in 2015. “The results go well beyond just web searches,” Putnam added because the Bing engine also drives Yahoo! Search and Apple’s Siri. Soon “your iPhone question (could) be answered by an FPGA,” he said.

The innovations will also change the basic building blocks of a data center – the server — and give developers the chance to program their hardware as well as their software, he said. “The efficiency gains are enormous, and this could enable a new wave of innovation in web and cloud services.”

Putnam, who went on from USD to earn both a master’s and PhD from the University of Washington in computer science and engineering, said his work on the exciting project has been a “testament to the quality of the engineering and computer science education” he received at USD. “ I had to do board design, FPGA programming, C++ programming, deal with Return-on-Investment (ROI) calculations, and do innumerable presentations to people up and down the company, including to the chief technical officer, and last year, a brief chat with Bill Gates.”

Susan Lord, USD professor of electrical engineering, said she’s not surprised that Putnam is doing great things. “He was one of our most amazing students” who also wanted to understand concepts deeply and worked well with his teammates on projects, she recalled. “I’m glad Microsoft has someone as talented as Andrew working on the next generation of software tools such as Project Catapult.”

— Liz Harman