Computing Applications

In Memoriam: Andrew Birrell 1951-2016

Andrew Birrell
Andrew Birrell in 2001.

Andrew Birrell, a computer scientist specializing in operating and distributed systems, who is credited with designing the first remote procedure call (RPC) system and the Grapevine distributed email system, passed away December 7 after a lengthy illness.

Born in Scotland,  Birrell attending Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned his doctorate in 1978 under Roger Needham for his work on the CAP Filing System and system programming in a high-level language.

Birrell came to the U.S. in 1978 to take the first of several positions at research laboratories that defined the course of his career: at the Palo Alto Research Center Inc. (Xerox PARC), where he worked through 1984. He then moved to Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC, later bought out by Compaq), where he spent 17 years in that organization’s Systems Research Center in Palo Alto. In 2001, He moved on to Microsoft Research Silicon Valley in Mountain View, CA, where he remained until it closed down in 2014.

Said Birrell of his work, “My research has been in the general area of operating systems and distributed systems, with occasional excursions into security, and one physical gadget (the Personal Jukebox, or ‘PJB’). Most recently I've been investigating security or its lack, as exemplified by TLS and the global X.509 public key infrastructure.“

Regarding the Personal Jukebox, the first commercially sold hard disk digital audio player, author Steven Levy wrote in his October 2006 book The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness” that the idea for digital music players based on a hard disk drive was Birrell’s:

In 1998, the first digital music players were beginning to appear, but they used memory chips that held barely one CD’s work of music. Andrew Birrell, a British-born, Cambridge-educated computer scientist, first came up with the idea to create a music player that used the tiniest hard disk drive possible, then a 2.5-inch drive that went into notebook computers. It would store a hundred CDs’ worth of music. He began the project with his colleague Ted Wobber in May 1998. It was something to occupy the researchers as their once-mighty company, DEC, was being acquired by the Houston-based PC maker Compaq.

…It would have made quite a splash…(but) the project was the victim of a sad corporate soap opera.

Birrell worked on a variety of substantive projects throughout his career, including:

At Cambridge (1973-1978):

At Xerox PARC (1978-1984):

  • Grapevine, distributed email, with the first distributed naming system
  • The Cedar programming environment (including its RPC system)

At Digital Equipment Corp. (then Compaq) Systems Research Center (1984-2001):

  • The Taos system, a micro-kernel operating system for a multi-processor
  • A Global Name Service
  • Assisting with the design of the Open Software Foundation Distributed Computing Environment (DCE)
  • Autonet, a high-speed mesh-connected network
  • The Echo replicated file system
  • Network Objects, a distributed object system, with a distributed garbage collector
  • Virtual Paper, a system for easy online document reading
  • Pachyderm, index-based email “in the cloud” with a web-based client
  • the Personal Jukebox, the first multi-gigabyte portable audio player

At Microsoft Research Silicon Valley (2001-2014):

Birrell’s name appears as inventor or co-inventor on 25 patents listed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In 1994, Birrell received the ACM Software System Award (jointly with Bruce Nelson) for their work on RPC. The citation read, “Lupine, the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) system in the Cedar Project, showed that the RPC programming paradigm, described in previous theoretical work, was indeed practical and effective. Key innovations included automatic compiled stubs, dynamic type-safe binding and exception-handling support, and RPC runtime protocols. This system work has ushered in many distributed system services and is continuing to be used to develop large distributed applications in some specialized areas.”

In 2007, the paper “Implementing Remote Procedure Calls,” co-written by Birrell and Bruce Jay Nelson and published in ACM Transactions on Computer Systems in 1984, was added to the ACM Special Interest Group on Operating Systems (SIGOPS) Hall of Fame. In 2008, the paper  “Grapevine: An Exercise in Distributed Computing,” co-written by Birrell, Roy Levin, Roger M. Needham and Michael D. Schroeder and presented at the Eighth ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP), was added to the ACM SIGOPS Hall of Fame.

Said computer scientist and writer Peter J. Denning,  Birrell was “a luminary in operating systems” known for “his elegant designs that made the complex seem simple.”

Colleague and co-inventor Wobber said Birrell “is perhaps best known for his seminal work on Remote Procedure Call, on the Grapevine system, one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as distributed systems, and on his precise treatise on Programming with Threads. He was not just a distributed systems expert, however. His CV includes important works in such diverse fields as systems architecture, formal methods, low-level OS functionality, and security. Moreover, Andrew was a true systems builder: he took pride from building artifacts from first principles and he had the skill to do so. These skills had real-world impact: his work on practical prototypes of an electronic book reader, an index-based web email system, and a portable music player closely anticipated the commercial offerings that many of us use today.”

Wobber added, “Andrew was known not only for his sharp intellect, but also for the keen sense of style represented in all things he designed and built. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that he was also a skilled amateur wood-worker.

“It was always well understood amongst his colleagues that Andrew's calm and reasoned voice was worth hearing. His insights have benefited the multiple generations of young researchers who spent time working with him.”

Birrell is survived by his wife Brenda, daughters Eleanor and Sarah Bravo, and son-in-law Dino Bravo.

Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for ACM Magazines.

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