A Memory of Jim Gray

I wrote this in 2006 after meeting Jim Gray. Jim was sadly lost at sea in January 2007.

Apparently there's a small plaque located at the Pentagon in Washington. The plaque faces skywards for the benefit of foreign spy satellites and it says "If you can read this, you're 10 years behind us!".

Satellite imaging was one topic of conversation when I met Jim Gray on Friday [in June 2006]. Jim is a leading researcher in the fields of database systems and transaction processing and was winner of the ACM Turing Award in 1998. He works at Microsoft Research in San Francisco where he has been behind some really cool projects such as the TerraServer and something called the World-Wide Telescope. He has also made lots of contributions to Microsoft SQL Server and database theory in general through his work on transaction control and data cubes for example.

A small group of us met him while he was in London. This was an informal event where Jim talked about some of his research work and we all discussed some technology trends. The discussion ranged from speech recognition and ecommerce to search and temporal databases.

Jim is an advocate of distributed models of storage and processing using commodity components. The idea is that massively scalable networks of basic hardware can deliver better price/performance ratios and higher availability than are possible from large investments in high-end systems. Someone asked him what was his largest SQL Server database. He replied that he knows of a 20 TB database but he would like to see that made smaller, i.e. distributed across more databases and servers.

At one point Jim explained a technique for spatial search using SQL - which is something I once attempted for a small business application. He has a paper on this, which I wish I'd had at the time.

More: A Tribute to Jim Gray by Eric Allman