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'The most ambitious project at eBay for a long, long time'

Inside the auction leviathan's search megaproject

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

'A pretty applied guy'

The majority of Williams' employment history has actually been in academia: according to his CV he spent 10 years of his career in teaching and research at Australia's School of Computer Science and IT, RMIT University, where he also graduated. That's longer than Voyager has actually been in action at eBay. This is not to detract from Williams' search smarts: he's earned two degrees in computer science at RMIT, and has 101 published works to his name, works that include three books, 20 journals and five patents – including the work on Bing – on programming and/or search. Among his top publications: Compression of inverted indexes for fast query evaluation.

Williams reckons his work at Microsoft has helped on Cassini.

Williams joined eBay in 2009 after four years at Microsoft; he joined Redmond right after RMIT. At Microsoft, Williams was a development manager in charge of 150 software engineers working on Microsoft Live Search and Bing, a project that has received billions of dollars in extra funding in the last half decade from a company coming from a standing stop to catch Google.

'The big thing I took away from Microsoft was how to build commercial search to scale – that was one of my big takeaways' – Hugh Williams

Williams managed the legendary Powerset team bought by Microsoft for $100m in an attempt to add to Bing the ability to understand the full meaning of the phrases that are typed into its search engine in order to deliver results based on that understanding.

It wasn't all Powerset and patents glory at Microsoft, though, as Williams worked on a feature that actually left Microsoft a little red-faced. He helped develop Bing's video search smart motion thumbnails, which let you play a 30-second clip of a video in your search returns when you moused over them. A good idea in a noble world, but in the impure world of reality it became a nifty way to dodge porn filters and grab a saucy 30-second eyeful. Microsoft rushed out a fix so wide-eyed parents could re-assert control over their precious PCs.

I asked Williams to comment on the incident, but he politely declined to comment.

In a relatively short time, then, Williams has landed himself prominent roles leading all-or-nothing search projects for two of the business world's best-known names: Microsoft and eBay.

The Bing thing

Williams reckons he made the transition from academia at RMIT to working on full-blown, industrial-size software search projects because his research work was applied. "I'd say the transition from academic to industry setting wasn't much of a jolt because I've always been a pretty applied guy. I was never a blue-sky academic," he says.

He concedes, though, that while he knew a lot about things like ranking detection, the challenge was the learning curve in taking the ideas behind Cassini and running them on a distributed search system rather than on a single node.

And that's where Bing seems to have helped. "The big thing I took away from Microsoft was how to build commercial search to scale – that was one of my big takeaways," Williams said.

Cassini is adopting systems management through the software layer: from set-up and testing of a server to the monitoring of its health and taking action in the event of problems. It is also building in fault-tolerance and beefing up reliability so that eBay can move off SPARC – famed for its solid performance – onto the ever-so-slightly less renowned, but cheaper, x86.

Search has changed a lot over the past few years, and Voyager has been bypassed, Williams said. "The 1990s version of search was: you bought expensive machines and ran them with humans. The 2010s version is: you buy cheap machines and run them with software, so it all runs as a reliable system."

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