Jim Gray

2008 Career Achievement
A pioneer in database and transaction processing computer systems, Gray’s research focused on applying computers to solve data-intensive scientific problems.

The nominating statement for this year's Career Achievement Award was unusually succinct: "Turing Award winner. Father of transaction processing as we know it. Contributor to SQL Server and other enterprise computing projects. Built TerraServer years before Google Earth. Enough said?"

Microsoft Technical Fellow Jim Gray combined an immense depth of knowledge in the field of computer science with a remarkable breadth of interest in the sciences outside his field. He possessed superb communication—and documentation—skills, particularly as the prolific author or coauthor of nearly 200 publications, including the indispensable Transaction Processing: Concepts and Techniques with Andreas Reuter. Gray also earned a reputation as one of the industry's foremost networkers, mentors, and advocates for cross-corporate transparency and cooperation.

PHILOSOPHY OF COMPUTING
Convinced that computers revealed more epistemological truths than the philosophy courses that had drawn him to the University of California, Berkeley, Gray earned the institution's first computer science Ph.D. in 1969. At IBM Research, Gray immersed himself in the emerging field of data management. His primary project, System R, demonstrated the superiority of relational databases and laid the foundation for the ubiquitous e-commerce transactions we take for granted today.

Gray spent the 1980s at Tandem, where he focused on creating transaction systems of increasing speed and decreasing errors. With a group of colleagues, he pushed for the establishment of transaction and database benchmarks, an initiative that evolved into the Transaction Processing Performance Council. Continuing to lead the drive for increasing high performance, he established a sorting benchmark while working at Digital Equipment Corporation in the early ‘90s. "These exercises in sociological-technological interactions intended to change the industry in a fair fashion became one of Jim's hallmarks," says Senior Architect Pat Helland.

Scalability, the potential for computers to store and analyze increasingly large amounts of information, was a primary theme of Gray's work. This almost naturally led him to Microsoft, where he arrived in 1995 to join the Scalable Servers Research Group and manage the company's Bay Area Research Center. He half-reluctantly agreed to demonstrate SQL Server 7.0's enterprise potential by building a terabyte-size database consisting of public-domain data that could live on the Internet. TerraServer, a free online repository of satellite imagery provided by the United States Geological Survey and the Russian Federal Space Agency, went live officially in June 1998. Predating Google Earth by seven years, TerraServer gave the commercial satellite industry a significant boost.

In 2003, TerraServer's code was used to launch SkyServer, which Gray, who was enamored of its apparent lack of commercial or military potential, characterized as "TerraServer looking the other way." His most recent research as manager of Microsoft's eScience group focused on a creative spatial indexing technique for astronomy data known as the Hierarchical Triangular Mesh.

TURING AWARD WINNER
The Association of Computer Machinery awarded the A. M. Turing Award, the computer world's Nobel Prize, to Gray in 1998 for his "seminal contributions to database and transaction processing research and technical leadership in system implementation from research prototypes to commercial products." As Tom Barclay, a close Bay Area Research Center colleague, puts it, "Jim was one of the few people in the research community to actually transition technology into product."

Enough said? Not quite. Gray was lost at sea on January 28, 2007, while sailing his aptly named Tenacious to scatter his mother's ashes amid the Farallon Islands near San Francisco. Thousands of volunteers used advanced data-imagery technology enabled by Gray's research to assist the Coast Guard's search. The hunt ended officially a month later, but Gray's legacy, influence, and example burn in the hearts and minds of the countless scientists and engineers he inspired.

Watch our Behind-the-Code broadcast to learn more about Gray.

Learn more about Gray's 1998 Turing Award.

View Gray's official press profile.