I work for a big tech company. I have a laptop that I carry to work in my bike bag and plug into the screens and keyboard and mouse. I mainly use it to log into a virtual machine in “Western Europe”. I like “my” virtual machine because it has lots of virtual CPUs and virtual RAM, although when it reboots it’s pretty slow for a while. I think this is because its virtual disk dissipates into the ether of a staggeringly complex globally distributed data storage system and has to be reconstituted on-demand.
I can run smaller, ephemeral virtual machines on my big virtual machine but most days I need to test my code on a “real machine”. I can reserve these and log into them from my big virtual machine. Typing on them is slow, they feel very distant. I suppose they are in America near the company’s HQ, or perhaps in Taiwan near to where I assume they are manufactured. Or perhaps they are spread all over the world. Maybe some of them are in Western Europe. I could find out but I don’t seem to care.
I work on security features for platform software. It’s very hard to explain what the features do, even to software engineers with security expertise. It’s very hard for us to be sure that the features are working. They don’t do anything at all that’s easy to detect, only smooth out the statistical likelihood of certain invisible events inside CPUs. But they could harm the performance of customer workloads.
We take lots of care to minimise the performance impact for customers. I don’t know who the customers are. We benchmark generic workloads that we suppose customers must run, like databases. We feed made up data into databases and read it back again. It’s very important that we can do this efficiently.
The security features are very important, because otherwise advanced attackers would be able to exploit the statistical patterns in events inside the CPU to steal data from our customers. Realistically, they would probably have to have inside agents working for the company to pull this off. It would be enormously difficult and risky, they would have to have grave motivations far beyond mere criminal greed. I don’t know if they exist.
In short, the work is mysterious and important.
I enjoy my job but I wonder if it the abstraction of it all does psychic damage. Artists who depict this damage (XKCD, Severance, Friends) may or may not have actually experienced it. I don’t feel it, even though sometimes I think, implausibly, I can feel the damage that a Coca-Cola does to my teeth. Maybe that’s just because it’s damaging the feeling parts.
My colleague and I were once visiting another office site where they have some retired server racks on display. We both stood there for a while, drawn to their physical presence but unable to extract any meaning from it. Two computer experts going “look, that must be the RAM”. Like priests seeing God and it’s just a guy with two ears.