Advancing the art and science of computing and information technology
The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, honors every year 1% of its members for their exceptional achievements in computing and information technology. “These men and women are advancing the art and science of computing with enormous impacts for how we live and work,” said ACM President Vinton G. Cerf. At the annual Awards Banquet in San Francisco, Prof. Markus Gross and Prof. Gustavo Alonso were formally recognized. Both become the ninth and tenth ACM Fellow at D-INFK, joining Donald Kossmann (2010), Bertrand Meyer (2008), Hans-Jörg Schek (2001), Emo Welzl (1998), Peter Widmayer (1997), Jürg Nievergelt and Erwin Engeler (1995), as well as Niklaus Wirth (1994).
Interview conducted by Jena Bakula, member of the Systems Group
Jena Bakula: Congratulations on your election to the ACM's highest membership grade. Tell us about what it means being an ACM Fellow?
Gustavo Alonso: ACM Fellows are recognized for their contributions to computer science. Becoming an ACM Fellow is a way to acknowledge the relevance and impact that my work at ETH has had over the years. Ultimately, being an ACM Fellow is a recognition of research excellence and a long lasting contribution to the field. I am happy and deeply honored to follow the footsteps of many other professors of our department that have made it to the grade of ACM Fellow. D-INFK is the computer science department in Europe with the most ACM Fellows, a very significant achievement and proof of ETH and the department’s commitment to long-term research. I am proud to join the ranks of such an illustrious group.
JB: Vinton G. Cerf emphasizes the impact ACM Fellows have made on the way we live and work. Which area in your research has made the greatest impact on industry/society?
GA: I am particularly happy that, as part of the nomination, ACM recognizes the breadth of the work I have been doing. Nevertheless, probably the biggest impact has come from the work on data replication using agreement protocols. The initial work, done together with Bettina Kemme (at the time a PhD student and now a professor at McGill University in Canada), combined insights from databases, transactional concurrency control and recovery theory, and distributed computing to show that one could efficiently implement consistent data replication. Afterwards, and with other PhD students and post-docs, we extended that seminal work in several directions that proved crucial in implementing practical solutions. Today, many cloud computing platforms use many of the principles we established and the techniques we developed to achieve consistency when replicating data.
JB: You have been elected ACM Fellow for your outstanding contributions to distributed systems, middleware, and data management. What are some valuable lessons you want to share from these research areas?
GA: As mentioned, I am happy ACM recognized the breadth of the research I have been doing. Working across areas is unusual and challenging but I have always been convinced that it was the right thing to do. Modern computer and software systems can no longer be built with expertise in a single area of computer science. Intuitively, I have always felt that way and that is why my work expands databases, language run time systems, distributed systems, virtual machines, and even theoretical aspects of concurrency control. I have had great fun exploring all these areas and learned a lot in the process, developing what I think is a unique perspective on our field. Becoming an ACM Fellow is a great way to get recognition for making the effort to expand the boundaries of traditional areas within computer science.
JB: What is your current research focus?
GA: These days most of my research is directed towards adapting traditional system software (OS, database, middleware) to new hardware platforms, such as multi-core architectures, large clusters, FPGAs, and cloud computing. The work cuts across many areas of computer science and the term “co-design” has become our motto: hardware/software co-design, database/operating system co-design, architecture/algorithms co-design, etc.
JB: Tell us about your future research plans, its challenges and opportunities?
GA: I am convinced that computer science research and the IT industry are undergoing a fundamental change. Economically, the IT industry is quickly moving from a manufacturing to a service model and that represents a huge change. Socially, computers are finally “disappearing” as long predicted: they are embedded into everyday things and people no longer have the perception to be interacting with a complex computer and software infrastructure when using a mobile phone, a social network, or shopping online. That will alter the way computer science departments approach education and even the profile of our future students. Intellectually, many of the assumptions that computer science has made in the last decades are being challenged at a fundamental level, opening up many great opportunities for research. We have great times ahead of us, especially as computers become even more critical for society and are recognized as an integral part of the modern economy.