Jim Gray - Industry Leader

April 2009

The TPC honors Jim Gray for his seminal contributions to the TPC and the field of database benchmarks.  In 1985, Jim authored a paper titled: A Measure of Transaction Processing Power.  It defined the Debit-Credit benchmark, which, four years later, became TPC-A.  Even though Jim designed the benchmark and wrote the paper mostly himself, he attributed it to “Anon et al” which he explained in the paper as “an attempt by two dozen people active in transaction processing to write down the folklore we use to measure system performance. The authors include academics, vendors, and users.”  Rather than publish in an academic journal or conference, Jim arranged for it to be published in Datamation (a leading publication for IT professionals at the time) to ensure it was seen by a much wider audience.  Not one to take himself too seriously, Jim delighted in it being published in the April 1st edition of the magazine.  But far from being an April Fool’s day prank, the paper became another of Jim’s contributions that changed the industry. 

At the time he wrote the paper, Jim was at Tandem Computers.  Two years later, in 1987, Jim conceived and drove Tandem’s “Top Gun” benchmark (named after the movie a year earlier) using the Debit-Credit workload.  Tandem showed 208 transactions-per-second on a SQL relational database – a phenomenal result at the time.  In the Top Gun benchmark, Jim introduced two new elements that went on to become foundational principles of the TPC: a full disclosure report and an independent audit. 

After the Datamation article, hardware and software vendors started running the Debit-Credit benchmark and announcing how much better they were than everyone else.  As vendors amped up the one-upmanship, claims and counterclaims flew.  Gray areas (no pun intended!) of the benchmark definition lead to apples-and-oranges comparisons.  In an effort to bring order to the chaos, Jim encouraged Omri Serlin and Tom Sawyer to launch the TPC. 

The TPC came to life in 1988.  Jim participated in the TPC for the first year as Tandem’s representative.  Much of TPC-A traces directly back to Jim.  Debit-Credit included a price/performance metric, which was quite novel at the time.  TPC-A formalized the price model.  Price/performance was a key differentiator for the TPC and has been included in every TPC benchmark since.  Jim also wrote the ACID clause which defined the transactional properties the benchmark system had to achieve.  Jim was uniquely qualified for this task having developed and formalized most of the theory of database transactions.  (In 1998, Jim was awarded the A.M. Turing Award – the “Nobel Prize for computer science” – for his seminal contributions to database and transaction processing research and technical leadership in system implementation.)

Although Jim moved on from the TPC in 1989, database performance continued to be a special interest for him.  In 2005, on the 20th anniversary of the April 1st Datamation article, Jim published Thousands of DebitCredit Transactions-Per-Second: Easy and Inexpensive, a research report in which he showed that a $2,000 laptop could run 8,000 transactions-per-second.  In the concluding paragraph of the paper, Jim put the progress of 20 years work in the following context:

The main point, for anyone involved in the benchmark wars of the 1980s and 1990s, is to marvel at the power of modern systems. They solve the old performance problems, leaving us free to focus on the many new performance problems. If we IT folks had the luxury of generals who fight the previous war, life would be boring. Although we do not have the DebitCredit problem anymore, it is nonetheless marvelous that we can solve it so easily.

On January 28, 2007, Jim was lost at sea.  At the time he disappeared, Jim was a Technical Fellow at Microsoft and previously a researcher at Digital, Tandem, IBM and AT&T.  His work on database and transaction processing systems included RDB, ACMS, NonStop SQL, Pathway, System R, SQL/DS, DB2, and IMS-Fast Path. He was editor of the Performance Handbook for Database and Transaction Processing Systems, and co-author of Transaction Processing: Concepts and Techniques, widely regarded as the bible of transaction processing.

Jim held a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley and honorary doctorates from the University of Stuttgart and University of Paris Dauphine.  He was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, American Academy of Arts and Science, the National Academy of Science, a Fellow of the ACM, and Editor of the Morgan Kaufmann series on Data Management.

In addition to Jim’s tremendous technical contributions, he was also a tremendous person.  Jim generously worked with others.  In the TPC, he encouraged everyone to participate and contribute to the process.  He took a great interest in developing people.  While his technical accomplishments are phenomenal, the impact Jim had on the thousands of people who knew him as a colleague, mentor, and friend is, perhaps, his greatest legacy. 

The June 2008 issue of the SIGMOD Record is devoted entirely to the proceedings of the Tribute to Honor Jim Gray, held May 31, 2008 at UC Berkeley.  Readers interested in learning more about Jim are encouraged to review the proceedings.