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MIT Technology Review

Stonebraker Wins Turing Award

CSAIL researcher invented core database concepts, turned many into companies.

Michael Stonebraker, a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), has won the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award. Often called “the Nobel Prize of computing,” the Turing Award now comes with a Google-funded $1 million prize.

Michael Stonebraker
Michael Stonebraker

Stonebraker revolutionized database management systems and founded multiple successful database companies; the Turing Award announcement lauds him for having “invented many of the concepts that are used in almost all modern database systems.”

An adjunct professor of computer science and engineering and a principal investigator at CSAIL, Stonebraker sometimes jokes that he didn’t know what he was researching for more than 30 years. “But then, out of nowhere, some marketing guys started talking about ‘big data,’” he says. “That’s when I realized that I’d been studying this thing for the better part of my academic life.”

Stonebraker’s research helped spur a multibillion-dollar industry, and he created and led nine big-data companies, including VoltDB, Tamr, Paradigm4, and ­Vertica (which Hewlett-Packard bought).

“Mike has been a trailblazer in the field of databases by asking the essential questions about how we collect, organize, and access information in our lives,” says Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and the director of CSAIL.

In his previous work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor for 29 years, ­Stonebraker developed Ingres and Postgres. These two influential systems provided the foundational ideas—and, in many cases, specific source code—that spawned several contemporary database products, including IBM’s Informix and EMC’s Greenplum.

At MIT, where he co-directs CSAIL’s Intel Science and Technology Center for Big Data, his major projects include C-Store, a column-oriented database that allows fast reading of large quantities of data; H-Store, a parallel database management system offering a high sustained rate of operations per second; and SciDB, which represents data as arrays to substantially improve performance for such things as machine learning and statistical data processing.

In an era when the term “open source” didn’t yet exist, Stonebraker also released many of his systems into the public domain, ensuring their widespread adoption and allowing other academics to build on his work.

“It’s every computer scientist’s dream to get this award, and I am so very honored to be selected,” says Stonebraker, the 11th Turing Award recipient who has taught or earned a degree at MIT. “It reinforces and validates the importance of the work that I have been doing alongside so many other researchers in the field of database management systems.”