ACM Infosys Prize 2009 goes to Professor Eric Brewer of UC Berkeley

On March 15, 2010 ACM named Professor Eric Brewer of the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at the University of Berkeley as the recipient of the ACM Infosys Foundation award for the year 2009.

Instituted in 2007 (on the eve of 25th year of Infosys) the ACM Infosys Foundation award carries a prize amount of $ 150,000 and represents the first global award instituted by an Indian Corporation. The award recognizes personal contributions of young computer scientists and systems developers (typically 40 years of age) that exemplify the greatest recent contributions in the computing field. This award is next only to Turing award, considered the “Nobel” in computing.

The award went to Professor Daphne Koller of Stanford University in the year 2007 and to Professor Jon Kleinberg of Cornell University in the year 2008.

This year’s award winner is special in more ways than one. On the one hand Professor Brewer has made cutting edge research contributions to the very foundations of computer sciene and built large-scale laboratory environments to demonstrate the impact of his research contributions; at the same time, he is equally at ease with societal contributions through his research center TIER (Technology & Infrastructure for Emerging Regions) that helps tens of thousands of patients in rural India!

Professor Brewer studied BS (Electrical Engineering) at UCB (University of California, Berkeley) and did his MS  & PhD degrees from MIT. He is reportedly one of the youngest professors to be tenured as Full Professor at UCB at the age of 32!

Professor Brewer’s contributions are towards the building of highly scalable and reliable Internet infrastructure. He built a laboratory with a network of workstations (NoW) that could beat the performance of expensive servers. Taking this idea further he went on to co-found Inktomi in 1995, an early search engine that was acquired by Yahoo in 2003. Inktomi was the first to use low-cost PCs to build a cluster and use algorithms and data structures to make the infrastructure “fault tolerant” (function even in case of individual workstation failure), an idea routinely used by major search engines including Google today. That paved the way for highly scalable and reliable Internet that we all take it for granted today.

The other seminal contribution of Professor Brewer is the CAP Theorem that showed the inherent inconsistency of trying to make systems Consistent, Available and Partition tolerant; in the process, Professor Brewer proposed BASE (Basically Available, Soft-state and Eventual consistent) as an alternative. Today’s large-scale Internet systems routinely use the idea of BASE.

Yet another key contribution of Professor Brewer is the “Wireless Hypothesis” that talks of developed economies introducing Wireless Internet (and other) infrastructure to be introduced first, instead of eternally waiting for the traditional infrastructure (road, power, drinking water) to be fully available to all citizens. To “prove” his hypothesis Professor Brewer built WiLDNet (an innovative network protocol that uses low cost widely available Wi-Fi chips to build a long-range network usable in rural areas) that is of great relevance to emerging markets. ACM President Wendy Hall summarized it well in her Press statement that accompanied the award notification “Professor Eric Brewer’s influential work on scalable web services has defined the basic architecture that is used by almost all systems and make him a visionary with a potential to advance society on numerous social and economic levels”.

Naturally many awards followed Professor Brewer over the years.

  • Professor Brewer was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering and elected as an ACM Fellow in 2007.
  • SIGOPS named him Mark Weiser Award winner in 2009
  • Global Economic Forum recognized him as “Global Leader for Tomorrow”
  • Technology Review included him in TR100 (Top 100 Most Influential People for the 21st century)
  • Industry Standard declared him as the “Most Influential Internet Architect”.
  • InfoWorld named him as the “Top Ten Innovators” way back in 2001.

On June 26, 2010 he will be formally awarded the ACM Infosys Foundation award.

Infosys CEO Kris Gopalakrishnan had the following to say in the Press statement “We are specially proud to honor Professor Eric Brewer for his contributions to computer science and his demonstration of the use of IT for the benefit of disadvantaged population in many regions, especially in developing countries”.

Professor Eric Brewer is no stranger to India. He heads the research center TIER (Technology & Infrastructure for Emerging regions) at UCB that focuses on technologies for the developing world. More than 25,000 patients in rural Tamil Nadu have benefited from tele-medicine that was provided by Aravind Hospital using WiLDNet technology, pioneered by TIER. He visited IIIT-B in the year 2007 and was in Bangalore last year to attend the marriage of his graduate student!

To get a taste of his contributions many of you, young students and professionals in the CS area should take a look at some of the widely cited papers of Professor Brewer listed below

  1. The nesC Language: a holistic approach to networked embedded systems (PLDI 2003)
  2. Cluster-based scalable network devices (SOSP 1997)
  3. SEDA – an architecture for well-conditioned scalable Internet services (SOSP 2001)
  4. Lessons from giant scale services (IEEE Internet Computing, July 2001)
  5. TinyOS (NSDI 2004) on Sensor networks
  6. Scalable distributed data structures for internet service construction (OSDI 2000)
  7. The case of technology in developing countries (Computer, July 2005)

Reading such seminal works will inspire you to do deep work.  Great researchers do not work towards rewards, but awards do motivate many youngsters like you to pursue rewarding research careers.

My very best wishes to many young students to undertake such award winning work.

(Appeared in Times of India, Education Times March 29, 2010)

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