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Originally published Monday, June 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Work of computer genius Jim Gray flourished amid research freedom

I'm starting to wonder if researchers, and not Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were the ones who made out the best during the computer industry's...

Seattle Times staff columnist

BERKELEY, Calif. — I'm starting to wonder if researchers, and not Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were the ones who made out the best during the computer industry's rise over the past four decades.

The river of billions flowing through companies such as Microsoft and IBM created shoals and islands where top computer scientists could play and tinker with the latest technology.

Or maybe that's just how it worked out for Jim Gray, the industry legend lost on a sailing trip last year who was lauded Saturday in a tribute here at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received the school's first Ph.D. in computer science.

Gray hit a different sort of jackpot, being born with a priceless mind and a strong, open personality suited to the industry. He also worked his way into schools and companies such as Microsoft that recognized his abilities and gave him the leeway and resources to do as he pleased.

In return, he dramatically advanced their products and the systems running much of today's commerce.

After hearing the silver-haired fraternity of Gray's peers list his accomplishments and chuckle about the ways he operated above and around the establishment, I also began wondering if we'll ever see anything like their era again.

Gray ended up at one of the few big tech companies that still invests heavily in advanced research. But even Microsoft's scientists may face more pressure to contribute to near-term earnings if the company's PC franchise wanes and it starts borrowing money to buy all or part of Yahoo.

Universities could fill the gap but they're getting less government funding. They've also caught the intellectual-property fever that increases the tension between old-school academic sharing and the pursuit of licensing opportunities.

Gray wasn't giving away the farm but he's remembered for collaborating and supporting the industry at large. I hope the Microsofts of tomorrow still have the resources, confidence and faith to let the next Jim Grays do whatever they want.

Here are a few excerpts from my blog during the Gray tribute:

Heart of transactions: IBM researcher Bruce Lindsay, who worked with Gray there, summed up the importance of Gray's most famous work: laying the groundwork for transaction processing.

"Online transactions today are key to life as we know it," he told several hundred friends and family members of Gray. "If the online transactions systems stopped today, you would be stuck in Berkeley until they started up again."

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Lindsay explained how crucial the technology is to financial systems — "credit reports, identity theft — all these things made possible. Overbooking — couldn't do that without transactions. No-fly list, brought to you by Jim Gray."

More seriously, the technology is "critical today in the developed world and increasingly in the developing world."

Accounts receivable, inventory and fulfillment all involve transactions processing, and the technology reduces record-keeping expenses and delays, reducing the cost of doing a transaction.

"If that expense can be reduced, both the customer and provider can benefit," Lindsay said, noting, for example, that ATM transaction costs have fallen from $5 to less than a cent.

Gray "refined the transaction concept and explained to us what its basic properties are, then he went on to show us how to do it."

Recruiting tug of war: The man was already a legend when Tandem began trying to recruit him.

One factor in the company's favor may have been that Gray was driving 75 miles each way to work at IBM's San Jose lab. Another was that Tandem was a sort of playground for Gray, a small company where he could get involved in everything from hardware to middleware at a company focused on transaction processing.

It was audacious to recruit Gray, a star at the overwhelmingly dominant tech company of the day, but Jerry Held started trying in 1976.

"In 1980, my phone rings and it's Jim. Jim says, 'I've decided to come to work at Tandem.' ... I said, 'Would you like to hear the financial offer?' He said, "No, you can tell me when I get there next week,' " Held recalled.

"Clearly he made a lot of money in his career, he did well financially, but it was never about the money. He worked at four companies, but it was never about the company. It was about moving the industry forward, working with great people."

Working out benchmarking: David DeWitt, a former University of Wisconsin professor who last month started Microsoft's new Jim Gray Systems Lab in Madison, described how Gray developed the standard benchmarking approach for measuring the speed and economy of transaction-processing systems.

DeWitt had developed a different benchmarking approach earlier, but Gray "told me I had it all wrong and did his own. This is how computer science works."

Gray's scheme appeared in an anonymous paper, "A Measure of Transaction Processing Power," which was published in the Datamation trade magazine in 1985.

His humor showed through: He worked hard to be sure it was published on April 1, and the last line was "There are lies, damn lies and then there are performance measures."

The beauty of Gray's approach was how simple it was, DeWitt explained: It basically mimics a banking transaction done by an ATM or a bank teller.

It launched the benchmarking race among computer-system vendors and established rules to avoid cheating, DeWitt said.

More important, the standardized measurements gave hardware and software companies more incentive to innovate and improve the performance of their systems.

"Transactions are cheap, because Jim designed a benchmark that changed the industry," DeWitt said.

Speaking next was Gray's friend and co-worker Gordon Bell, another San Francisco-based computing pioneer in Microsoft's research group. He gave a funny and touching talk about ways Gray could achieve immortality through memorials, books and online avatars, and by naming things such as new units of measurement after the man.

Of course, Gray already achieved a sort of immortality through his contributions to computer science and the generation of people he mentored.

"Then of course there's Gray matter; we've named a part of the brain after Jim," Bell said.

Gray's name could also be applied to algorithms, procedures, laws of computing or units of computing performance.

But the best may be a new paradigm for science that Gray was advocating late in his career — what Bell called the Gray paradigm for data exploration.

Science used to be empirical, describing natural phenomena. Then in the past few hundred years, it was theoretical, using models and generalization. In the past few decades, computation has enabled scientists to simulate complex phenomena.

That's led to an approach that further mixes computer science with other sciences, unifying theory, experiment and simulation. It involves huge amounts of data captured by instruments and simulation, software to process it and information or knowledge that's stored in computers.

In this new kind of science, "computer scientists really learn the scientists' science and become a co-partner or a twin working on science overall."

A couple of remembrances: A closing comment by Microsoft architect, Pat Helland:

"Jimi Hendrix once said knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens. Jim Gray wrote and spoke an astonishing amount ... but even more so he listened more than he wrote, and that fulfilled so much."

Michael Harrison, a professor at Berkeley, recalled Gray asking about seeing a Berkeley chair in Harrison's name.

Harrison, who was on the board of the San Francisco Opera, asked him to help that organization instead. In particular, the "software they were using for ticketing was absolutely impossible.

"So Jim actually solved the problem and here's how he did it: He and a friend who was also at Microsoft used their privileges as Microsoft employees to buy stuff at a discount.

"The opera ended up with $1 million worth of equipment to solve all their problems which actually cost the donors a lot less."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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