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In the ’80s, he left cars for databases, doing some seminal work on IBM’s DB2 database and later on Microsoft’s SQL Server. NetFlix’s Adrian Cockroft met Hamilton several years ago at a conference in Asilomar, California, called the High Performance Transaction Systems Workshop. A kind of Bohemian Grove for geeks, it’s the sort of place where you can sit down with “the people who invented databases,” Cockcroft says, calling Hamilton “one of the fundamental people in that space.” The invitation-only event was co-founded by Jim Gray, the legendary database guru Hamilton is often compared to. Gray shared Hamilton’s love for the ocean — sadly, he vanished at sea off the northern California coast six years ago — and both pushed the boundaries of database research at IBM before moving to Microsoft.

But while at Microsoft, Hamilton caught the data center bug, working as an architect in a research group called called the Data Center Futures team, and in 2009, he moved to Amazon, where he does similar work — although many of the particulars remain a mystery, with both Amazon and Microsoft reluctant to reveal the secrets of their data centers. When we ask Microsoft’s David Gauthier, a director in the company’s data center group, if he knew James Hamilton, he brightens for an instant — “Yeah, I definitely spent a lot of time working with James before he left and went over to the other side” — before declining to say anything more.

But occasionally we get a whiff of how Hamilton is changing the data-center world. While at Microsoft, according to contemporary reports, he was one of the driving forces behind Microsoft’s move to modular data centers — where computing facilities are more efficiently pieced together using self-contained building blocks. And over a beer at Las Vegas, Hamilton confirmed that, in an effort to cut costs across its massive data-center empire, Amazon now designs its own servers.

On his blog, Hamilton provides at least a small window into his approach to data-center design — not to mention his take on massive diesel engines. He has endorsed the idea of ultra-low-power servers built around chips not unlike the one in your cellphone, and when half of the New Orleans Superdome went black earlier this month in the middle of Super Bowl XLVII, he cranked out a detailed analysis of how pro sports stadiums could prevent this kind of thing by borrowing a page from the Amazon playbook.

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