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Thousands Remember Missing Microsoft Database Pioneer Jim Gray

Gray disappeared on his sailboat, "Tenacious," and despite an intensive search, no trace of his boat was ever found.
It seems obvious now that a transaction is a discrete unit of work, that the data it's using must not change before the transaction is finished, and the whole unit of work must be completed or the must be process thrown away and started over. But at the time he undertook it, the process of conducting hundreds or thousands of transactions a second by computer was bewildering in its complexity. He even defined what data needed to be locked up during a transaction and what chances might be taken with other data at minimum risk to system integrity.

"Jim had the talent of making complex things seem obvious. If we were talking about a complicated issue around a table, he could summarize everything we'd said in three sentences. Afterward, we'd say, 'that's pretty obvious,'" only it hadn't been until Gray said it, said Eric Allman, who worked with Gray on Ingres, now CTO of SendMail, a firm that supplies trusted email systems. He is the author of Sendmail, the open source mail transfer agent that still delivers 65% of email on the Internet.

After Gray defined transactions at part of the System R relational database team at IBM, he moved to Tandem Computers where he helped implement NonStop SQL, the Tandem fault tolerant operating system. His work there demonstrated how transactions could both be implemented correctly and be executed with blinding speed by a system that didn't fail.

Tandem had been trying to hire him for a long time when he called Jerry Held, CTO, to say he'd take the job. Held asked him did he want to know about his salary and Gray said, "No, I'll find out next week when I come in." While working on NonStop SQL, he wrote a paper, "Why Do Computers Stop And What Can We Do About It," a title that showed his willingness to test the limits of managerial patience.

He received the Turing award in 1998 from the Association For Computing Machinery, the computer industry's equivalent of the Nobel prize with a similar cash award, for his work on transactions.

Gray was working as lead researcher in the Microsoft Bay Area Research Lab at the time he disappeared.

"Jim leaves an astonishing wake behind him and I miss him," concluded Helland.