Microsoft Senior Technical Fellow Dave Cutler is to be honoured with a Computer History Museum Fellowship tomorrow.
Cutler’s impressive body of work spans five decades and two coasts,with work ranging from developing the VMS operating system for Digital Equipment Corporation in the late ‘70s, his central role in the development of Windows NT – the basis for all major versions of Windows since 1993 – to his more recent experiences in developing the Microsoft Azure cloud operating system and the hypervisor for Xbox One that allows the console to be more than just for gaming.
“The Fellow awards recognize people who’ve had a tremendous impact on our lives, on our culture, on the way we work, exchange information and live. And yet, having had such a profound impact, they’re mostly unknown,” said John Hollar, the museum’s president and CEO. “People like Dave Cutler, who probably influences the computing experiences of more than 2 billion people, yet isn’t known in a way he deserves to be, in proportion to the impact he’s had on the world.”
Cutler, 74, who still comes to his office each day on Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Washington, campus, has shaped entire eras.
“The degree to which Dave has advanced the computing industry and advanced business can’t be overstated,” said Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s former chief software architect. “Dave’s groundbreaking work on VMS enabled DEC’s VAX to become the category killer in the era of the 32-bit supermini. When the PC itself then transitioned to 32 bits from 16, Dave’s work on NT was directly responsible for enabling Windows to yet again be the category killer. And as the computing world shifted from servers to services, Dave’s work on Azure was key to enabling Microsoft’s transformation to one of the world’s top providers of cloud computing infrastructure.”
The famous Gorden Bell, now Research Emeritus at Microsoft, believes Cutler is the only engineer with the confidence to pull off NT as he did. “Almost anyone who would have been good enough to do NT would have insisted on a blank sheet for the spec,” Bell said. “Dave appreciates legacy and compatibility. The world is better off because Dave Cutler went to Microsoft and built NT for a much larger market.”
Nathan Myhrvold, former chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft, considers Cutler one of the greatest systems programmers of all time. “Writing hard-core systems software down in the bowels is a very specialized thing. For every systems programmer there are a thousand applications programmers who program on top of it. Dave’s just one of the greats.”
“What Dave and team accomplished was an almost impossible design challenge,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.
“If there’s one technical person who’s indispensable in the history of modern Windows, it’s Dave,” said Terry Myerson, executive vice president, Windows and Devices Group.
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s agreed, saying “There wouldn’t be a Microsoft today without Dave.”
Cutler stopped managing the entire NT project in 1996, but continued to lead the kernel development until 2006, with his last project being shipping the first two x64 64-bit Windows systems.
Two years later, on Oct. 27, 2008, Ray Ozzie stood on stage at the company’s Professional Developer’s Conference in Los Angeles and announced a technology preview of Windows Azure (now Microsoft Azure).
“… Amitabh, Dave and their team have been working for a few years now on our own platform for computing in the cloud,” Ozzie said. “It’s designed to be the foundation, the bedrock underneath all of Microsoft’s service offerings for consumers and business alike, and it’s designed to be ultimately the foundation for yours as well. And so I’d like to announce a new service in the cloud, Windows Azure.”
Eight years later, Microsoft Azure plays a significant role in Microsoft’s cloud business. At the company’s most recent developer conference in San Francisco, Scott Guthrie, the company’s executive vice president of its Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Group, told developers Microsoft’s cloud now manages more than 1 million servers within 30 unique Azure regions around the world. “To put that in perspective,” Guthrie said, “that’s more locations than Google and AWS combined.”
For his next project, Cutler worked with Boyd Multerer, then-director of development for Xbox One in 2011, to develop a virtual machine for Xbox One, allowing both games and apps to run on the console at the same time.
“We weren’t sure we could do it,” Multerer recalls. “We knew we would need someone really special to pull it off. So we asked ourselves, ‘Well, do we know anyone who could do this type of specialized work’ and Dave’s name was about the only one that came up. He’s got that depth of knowledge at the bottom of the operating system – how it interfaces with the hardware, how you build virtual machines. All that experience was there, but he’s legendary and intimidating, so we figured there’s no way we’d ever get him to join our team.”
“Dave designed and wrote the hypervisor for Xbox One,” Multerer said, with an obvious sense of awe. “He wrote the entire bottom of the stack. Because the hypervisor is there, Xbox games can run on Windows. That’s why apps run on Xbox One. The impact of that work is phenomenal. And the amount of work he did was phenomenal.”
Two years later, on Nov. 22, 2013, Xbox One shipped in North America.
Commenting on his prodigious career, Cutler said:
“Much of my success belongs to the people I have worked with. Every project I have worked on has been filled with industry-leading software and hardware engineers. My part in relation to theirs has been quite small.
“But I have always strived to be a thinker doer,” Cutler continued. “I have a couple of sayings that are pertinent. The first is: ‘Successful people do what unsuccessful people won’t.’ The second is: ‘If you don’t put them [bugs] in, you don’t have to take them out.’ I am a person that wants to do the work. I don’t want to just think about it and let someone else do it. When presented with a programming problem, I formulate an appropriate solution and then proceed to write the code. While writing the code, I continually mentally execute the code in my head in an attempt to flush out any bugs. I am a great believer in incremental implementation, where a piece of the solution is done, verified to work properly, and then move on to the next piece. In my case, this leads to faster implementation with fewer bugs. Quality is my No. 1 constraint – always. I don’t want to produce any code that has bugs – none.
“So my advice is be a thinker doer,” Cutler concluded. “Focus on the problem to solve and give it your undivided attention and effort. Produce high-quality work that is secure.”
Read much more about the great man and his achievements at Microsoft here.