Thousands Remember Missing Microsoft Database Pioneer Jim Gray - InformationWeek

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6/2/2008
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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.

Before Jim Gray addressed the problem of defining a transaction, isolating it from other processes and supplying rules to govern its execution, an online transaction cost a bank $5. After his definition and rules had been widely accepted, an online transaction cost 0.5 cents.

He tended to have that kind of impact on whatever problem he addressed, or at least that seemed to be the consensus of the 1,000-plus people who gathered at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley to honor him Saturday. Gray disappeared on his sailboat, "Tenacious," Jan. 28, 2007, and despite an intensive search, no trace of his boat was ever found. The event at his alma mater was organized by his friends and family to remember his accomplishments.

While frequently described as highly approachable, his "biblical knowledge" of computer science left many of his peers feeling they were dealing with a giant intellect. Gray obtained the first PhD issued in computer science by Berkeley. "He had an enormous intellect," said Ed Lazowska, holder of the Bill and Melinda Gates chair of computer science at the University of Washington.

"There are a lot of smart people at Microsoft. He was the one person who everybody thought was smarter than they were," said David Vaskevitch, senior vice president at Microsoft.

Pat Helland, one of the authors of Transaction Server/COM at Microsoft, told of hearing a Gray technical presentation as a young Silicon Valley worker, then sharing his team's ideas on "shadow page recovery," an approach to rebuilding lost data. In a brief exchange Gray was able to advise him he needed to rethink his plan. He described the experience as a "four to five minutes of being simultaneously crushed and uplifted."

"Jim Gray was one of the few people I found intimidating," said Michael Stonebraker, a leading author of the Ingres and Postgres systems at Berkeley where he formerly taught computer science.

Paula Hawthorn, a now-retired VP of research and development at Informix, remembers a Berkeley symposium where a graduate student delivered his research results, only to have Gray, wearing sandals, stride out of the audience and demand to know who had reviewed his paper.

Gray said the research results had been discovered years before. "He said, 'I don't blame you, young man, but I want to know who reviewed this paper,'" she recalled at the Zellerbach Hall event. She said he glared at the audience, expecting some culprit to emerge. No one raised their hand. Hawthorn asked her companion, who the interloper was. "That's Jim Gray," was all the explanation needed.

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