Feeds

Tech luminaries honor database god Jim Gray

A tribute, not a memorial

Boost IT visibility and business value

In the early nineties, when David Vaskevitch decided that Microsoft should tackle the enterprise database business, the first thing he did was pick up the phone. He dialed the sharpest software minds he knew, and he asked each one who he should talk to about all things DB. They all gave the same answer: Jim Gray. And each described him in exactly the same way: Jim Gray, they said, is smarter than I am.

"I kept going back to the idea that the smartest person in the world must be Jim Gray," says Vaskevitch, now CTO of Microsoft's business platforms division, "because there was no one who would say they were smarter."

Then he met the man. And he realized that if you called him the smartest person in the world, you sold him short. "At least at Microsoft, the smarter you are, the less human you are. But Jim was exactly the opposite."

In 1998, Jim Gray won the Turing Award for his seminal work on database transaction processing. While at IBM's San Jose research center in the mid-70s, he helped define the fundamental ways that information moves to and from the world's online record stores. But for Vaskevitch - and for so many others - his influence was much greater than that.

Photo of Jim Gray. of Microsoft

Jim Gray

"A lot of the core concepts that we take for granted in the database industry - and even more broadly in the computer industry - are concepts that Jim helped to create," Vaskevitch says, "But I really don't think that's his main contribution."

Jim Gray didn't just nurture the database. He nurtured the database industry - and industries beyond - serving as friend and mentor to an army of pioneering computer scientists. "I would call someone up and try to convince them to come to Microsoft," Vaskevitch remembers, "and sometimes, they would say they wanted to talk to Jim Gray first. But usually, they had already talked to Jim about the phone call I was going to make before I even knew I was going to make it.

"Jim had this web of connections. You can think of him as the transaction coordinator, where the transactions were people moving around the industry. He made it all work."

And making it all work wasn't his motivation. "Jim had an ability to make you feel that he really cared about your life - because he did - an ability to have that kind of personal relationship with so many of us. That's what most defined him."

On Saturday, at University of California Berkeley, David Vaskevitch was among the dozens who gathered for a day-long tribute to the life and work of Gray. Eighteen months ago, Gray was lost at sea after sailing his yacht, Tenacious, from San Francisco Bay.

Despite a five-day hunt by the US Coast Guard - and another three weeks of searching by some of the tech industry's cleverest minds - he wasn't found. But in the words of Pauline Boss, Saturday's gathering was not a memorial.

"It is because of the mystery that we honor rather than memorialize Jim Gray today," said Boss, professor emeritus of psychotherapy at the University of Minnesota. "Paradoxically, acknowledging what we don't know helps focus on what we do know: that Jim Gray's contributions to the world, to science, to friends, and to his family are immense, and continue to influence us all every day."

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Next page: Bootnote

More from The Register

next story
The Return of BSOD: Does ANYONE trust Microsoft patches?
Sysadmins, you're either fighting fires or seen as incompetents now
Linux turns 23 and Linus Torvalds celebrates as only he can
No, not with swearing, but by controlling the release cycle
China hopes home-grown OS will oust Microsoft
Doesn't much like Apple or Google, either
Sin COS to tan Windows? Chinese operating system to debut in autumn – report
Development alliance working on desktop, mobe software
Apple promises to lift Curse of the Drained iPhone 5 Battery
Have you tried turning it off and...? Never mind, here's a replacement
Eat up Martha! Microsoft slings handwriting recog into OneNote on Android
Freehand input on non-Windows kit for the first time
Linux kernel devs made to finger their dongles before contributing code
Two-factor auth enabled for Kernel.org repositories
This is how I set about making a fortune with my own startup
Would you leave your well-paid job to chase your dream?
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Scale data protection with your virtual environment
To scale at the rate of virtualization growth, data protection solutions need to adopt new capabilities and simplify current features.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?