If you have ever designed a house or been part of the design process for a building, you know that successful designs are the gestalt of many ideas and often conflicting objectives. Collaboration spaces, meeting rooms, window offices, LEED certification, storage and loading dock access, utility routing, computer spaces, telecom closets, and environmental safety – the list is seemingly endless and desires always exceed budgets. However, when the conflicting objectives are harmonized, the result is both functional and elegant, satisfying both esthetic and practical expectations.
In each design, a senior architect is ultimately responsible for eliciting harmony from the cacophony of competing objectives. Although he or she inevitably works with a cadre of designers and subsystem experts, each senior architect brings a certain panache and philosophy to each project. The great ones and their work are instantly recognizable. Look no further than I. M. Pei and the Louvre pyramid, Frank Gehry and MIT's Stata Center, or Mies van der Rohe and the Seagram building to see this elemental truth embodied in steel, masonry and glass.
It is worth pausing to consider the exegesis and etymology of the phrase "computer architect" and the phrase's broader relationship to architecture in the grand sense of style and design. In this context, a computer architect is far more than a system integrator, but someone who combines disparate elements to create something compelling and new that elegantly and efficiently solves an important problem.
Simply put, computer architects create something of functional beauty, just as do their cousins who work in the more tangible media of rock and stone. Consider John Cocke and the IBM 801, Ken Batcher and the Goodyear MPP, Tadashi Watanabe and the NEC SX. Similarly, Seymour Cray's designs balanced many aspects of power engineering, packaging and cooling, memory bank design and functional unit architecture, and his success arguably rested as much on his prowess as a packaging and cooling designer as it did on his acumen as a processor and memory system designer.
The facts differ, but the story is the same. The sum has always been more than the parts.
The Gestalt Matters
As we debate possible exascale designs, evaluate eco-friendly mega data center approaches, ponder the implications of heterogeneous multicore processors, struggle to overcome the memory wall and explore alternatives to rotating magnetic storage, we should remember the broad meaning of architect and its implication for multidisciplinary design. In an era of hyper-specialization and local optimization, we often forget the importance of global optimization. Sometimes it really is better to know something about everything than everything about almost nothing.
Whether building or machine, effective design incorporates and balances diverse elements and capabilities. The sum has always been more than the parts.