When Thomas Joseph was a post-doctoral student at Cornell University 27 years ago, the problem of synchronization in distributed systems was a new but important research area in the fledgling computer industry. In those early days, 50 to 100 computers was considered a large-scale system. Even so, reducing complexity was top of mind for programmers intent on ensuring streamlined data synchronization. Working with his thesis advisor Kenneth Birman, Joseph designed and implemented a system that suggested a way to ease the problem of synchronization in distributed systems. With the emergence of cloud computing, not to mention sites like Facebook and Google that rely on tens of thousands of computers to process data, the quest for simplification has made Joseph’s work more relevant than ever. That’s why the Association of Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Special Interest Group on Operating Systems (SIGOPS) recently bestowed its prestigious ACM SIGOPS Hall of Fame Award on Joseph for his 1987 paper, “Exploiting Virtual Synchrony in Distributed Systems.”
The Award recognizes papers published at least ten years ago relating to operating systems that have had a demonstrated long-term impact on the field. Joseph joins an elite group of computer science luminaries that have received the SIGOPS Hall of Fame Award. Past honorees include the designers of Unix, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, relational databases guru, Jim Gray, and distributed systems pioneer, Leslie Lamport.
Simplified synchronization enters the cloud era
Joseph’s paper describes a system designed around virtual synchrony. “We wanted to create a simplified programming environment that hid complexity. It allowed someone to program a distributed set of computers as if they are all in sync, but behind the scenes they were allowed to get out of sync without causing errors,” he says.
Next page: SAP’s strategy for the Internet of Things
Now in his current role as Chief Technology Architect at SAP focused on the company’s internet of things strategy, Joseph draws parallels between his original research and current cloud-based system demands. “The problems haven’t gone away. With the advent of cloud computing, we actually have much larger distributed systems that require a layer of simplicity for users. Social media sites like Google and Facebook connect billions of users, but tomorrow’s internet of things applications will connect tens of billions of things.”
Internet of things apps will connect tens of billions of things
He sees the cloud industry experiencing an evolution similar to on-premise operating systems of the past 30 years. “Infrastructure-as-a-service solutions leaves a lot of the complexity around issues like fault tolerance and consistency to the programmer. To get the full benefit of cloud, we have to re-apply the concept of hiding complexity and the synchronization of data and actions to the cloud platform.”