The Laureates

Peter Badge

Jeffrey A. Dean

Born 23 July 1968, Honolulu, Hawai, USA

Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat received the 2012 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Sciences (today the ACM Prize in Computing) – For their leadership in the science and engineering of Internet-scale distributed systems.

Jeffrey Dean studied at the University of Minnesota and in 1990, he received his bachelor’s in Computer Science and Economics. He then went to the University of Washington, receiving a PhD in Computer Science. However, even back in high school he was making waves in the world of computer science.

Even before entering college, Dean had written software called Epi Info that was able to analyze large epidemiological data sets much faster than the software professionals had at the time. Epi Info is still being used today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While working toward his PhD at the University of Washington, Dean frequently collaborated with Craig Chambers on compilers, which are programs that convert source code into a more communicative language for computers. Following his PhD, Dean went to work at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Western Research Lab in 1996, working on a variety of things including designing new kinds of CPU profiling hardware and building software for web-based information retrieval and eventually landed at a young company called Google.

When Dean joined Google in 1999 and began working on the advertising and search systems, the company was 20 employees strong and packed into a small office in Palo Alto. A few years later, he and Sanjay Ghemawat began working on the software framework used to store and process large data sets. Dean and Ghemawat’s work together would lead to designing Google’s completely innovative software infrastructure and their groundbreaking paper in 2004, MapReduce: Simplified Data Processing on Large Clusters. Google had the massive problem of needing to reliably process vast amounts of data for building Google’s search indices on thousands of machines while dealing with slow and unreliable machines and congested networks. In MapReduce, Dean and Ghemawat allowed these issues to be dealt with in the implementation of the system, and allowed users of the system to focus on the problem they were trying to solve. Dean and Ghemawat also collaborated on BigTable, which enables applications to have access to enormous volumes of data, and Spanner, or the “world’s largest single database” that enables data centers all over the world to remain in sync through varying update speeds. Their distributed software system is able to employ the power of tens of thousands of computers and is responsible for the way computing functions today.

The infrastructure that Dean and Ghemawat designed and built power enormous Internet applications through dividing the workload into smaller more manageable chunks and distributing them to thousands of machines. A crucial aspect is the scalability of the systems that permitted the development of cloud computing, an abstraction of the hardware and implementation. This makes it possible for large-scale resources to be available to programmers by, according to Dean, “automatically parallelizing computations across machines and transparently handling failures.”

The extent to which Dean and Ghemawat’s 2004 paper has altered the world of computing is difficult to impossible to quantify, however it has been cited over 22,000 times and their work has transformed cloud computing’s capabilities.

Reading the scope of Dean’s projects at Google redefines the limitations of what one person can achieve. Google’s rapid development and blistering growth are largely due to what Dean accomplished, the infrastructure he developed and the other areas he focused his energy. Currently, he is leading the Google Brain project, which according to Dean, focuses “on building large scale computing systems to do machine learning and doing advanced machine learning research.” Dean is convinced that Google’s progress in machine learning is attributed to an important distinction from other research groups: the aggregation of talented minds in both machine learning and large-scale computing.

2009 was a particularly esteemed year for Dean; he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and became both a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS). In 2012, Dean and Ghemawat were honored with the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Sciences (now the ACM Prize in Computing).

Text adapted from Research at Google, Forbes’ Q+A With Jeff Dean: The Brain Behind Google’s Artificial Intelligence and ACM press release ACM and Infosys Foundation Honor Google Developers for Innovations that Transformed Internet-Scale