Prof. Ken Birman, Cornell University

Ken Birman ( has only recently shifted to big data challenges, after a career focused primarily on high assurance in distributed computing and cluster-style systems. Ken is best known for a series of systems he created that all bore the name Isis, or some related name like Horus (the idea was to make allusion to the Egyptian resurrection myth).
The first of these, the Isis Tookit (1985-1995) introduced the virtual synchrony consistency model in an easily used form.
A spin-off he launched, Isis Distributed Systems, used the toolkit to build communication infrastructures for the New York Stock Exchange floor trading system, the French Air Traffic Control System, and the US Navy AEGIS warship, as well as many other critical systems in settings like telecommunications, process control and equity trading. Many of these systems remain active today, providing continuous service and healing themselves automatically after failures or other disruptions.

Other technologies Ken helped created were transitioned to Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Cisco and JBoss, where they became components of the Microsoft cluster management solution, Amazon’s S3 and EC2, IBM Websphere, Cisco’s CRS-1 router technology and JGroups. Ken often describes himself as a cloud computing researcher who entered the field before it was known by that name.

More recently, Ken’s focus has been on a new system, Isis2 (download it in open source form from, which is focused on big data uses in cloud settings. Isis2 itself is a library aimed at the creation of scalable cloud infrastructure tools with strong consistency, security and fault-tolerance properties.
The focus of Ken’s current effort is to find ways of applying the system to big data applications, notably in the Smart Power Grid, which entails operating the bulk power transmission network more efficiently and in ways that can increase exploitation of renewables. The big challenge is to find ways to make strong assurance guarantees look natural to cloud computing users who are working with big data, and especially with rapidly changing data sets.

A prolific author, Ken has written some 200 journal and conference papers, 3 books, and a great number of software systems. An ACM Fellow and an IEEE Senior Member, Ken is the winner of the IEEE Kanai Award, the IEEE TPDS distinguished contribution award, and an ACM SIGOPS Hall of Fame award. He currently holds the N. Rama Rao Professorship at Cornell University, where he has been since obtaining his MS and PhD degrees from UC Berkeley in 1981. He can be contacted at ken AT


Isis2: A new Open Platform for Data Replication in the Cloud.–Interview with Ken Birman.
ODBMS Industry Watch, July 11, 2013.

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