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Profile: Microsoft hires noted database researcher to help scale SQL Server

DeWitt to head research lab at UW-Madison, hopes to see results make their way into products

By Eric Lai
November 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - David DeWitt's journey to becoming one of the world's leading academic experts on databases started off almost by accident.

"I had taken one database class in graduate school," DeWitt recalled. "That was enough that when I showed up as a new faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (in the mid-1970s), the chairman said, 'You're the new database guy.'"

DeWitt took the ball and ran with it. After three decades in the field, DeWitt's resume includes the co-invention of three parallel databases -- including one that was sold to NCR Inc., publication of more than 100 technical papers and numerous awards and honors from his database peers.

DeWitt retired from the University of Wisconsin last year. But he has already returned, this time as a Microsoft Technical Fellow and head of a new database research center located on the Madison campus and funded primarily by his new employer.

DeWitt will talk about the center during a keynote speech Friday at the Professional Association for SQL Server's annual conference, which is taking place this week in Seattle.

The confab has 2,500 attendees, many coming to learn about Microsoft's recently released SQL Server 2008 or hear about Microsoft's road map as it attempts to move into the high-end business intelligence arena dominated by Teradata Inc. and small data warehousing appliance vendors.

David DeWitt
David DeWitt will lead the Microsoft Jim Gray Systems Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
On Wednesday, Microsoft demonstrated a feature that will let database administrators manage pools of hundreds of SQL Server databases at a time.

For DeWitt, the lab is an opportunity to do the same sort of research he has done for the past 32 years, but also see those results make their way into products, namely SQL Server, in a much shorter time frame.

It also gives DeWitt the financial backing that computer science academics, especially those in the database field, have lost in recent years.

"Researching query optimization on parallel systems -- this is not something you can go to [the National Science Foundation] or DARPA and get money for anymore," DeWitt said. But he added that cutting-edge database research was already shifting away from academia to industry.

"In the old days, you could take a small group of grad students and build a state-of-the-art prototype of a database system," he said. "Systems are so complex these days, it's hard to make headway with only five grad students."

Also, "the smartest students from abroad don't come for their [computer science] Ph.Ds anymore, they go and join investment banks," DeWitt continued. "So industry has really taken over a leadership role. It's one reason I left academia."

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