Celebrating foundational and impactful contributions to datacenter networking

VMware is pleased to announce the 2019 recipient of the early career Systems Research Award: Mohammad Alizadeh, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prof. Alizadeh is recognized as a pioneer of datacenter networking, and his innovative protocols and concepts are influencing datacenters across the globe. MIT will receive a gift of US $100,000 in support of his highly valued research to advance the state of the art in networking.

Datacenters represent an important special case in networking, for example offering extremely high link rates and low latencies relative to the wide-area settings like the Internet. Because of the unique characteristics of modern datacenters, popular networking protocols like TCP are far from ideal. Much of Mohammad’s early work arose from an extensive re-imagining of networking (and, more generally, resource allocation) in the datacenter setting. Importantly in the context of this Systems Research Award, Mohammad role-models a blended attention to both principle and practice.

Says Prof. Scott Shenker (UC Berkeley), “Mohammad’s work is impressive in that he hasn’t superficially adapted old protocols to modern settings: instead his research style is to study the fundamentals, come up with new insights and principles, and then seek ways to implement those new ideas in a backward-compatible way”. One particularly well-known example is the DCTCP transport protocol, which is now part of the mainline Linux kernel and is being used by both major cloud providers and numerous companies around the world. Another is CONGA, which is deployed in flagship Cisco products following their acquisition of Insieme. Because of his disciplined approach, Mohammad’s work has had enormous impact not just on academia but also in practice. Says VMware Fellow Ole Agesen, “notwithstanding the overall maturity of networking research, Mohammad made a great deal of progress with ideas that quickly translated into real-world benefits and impact”.

Mohammad also role-models breadth and versatility. A second major body of work has involved programmable data planes, to advance the idea of software defined networking. With ideas such as packet transactions and push-in, first-out (PIFO) scheduling Mohammad has influenced the P4 Standard. More recently, Mohammad has been exploring the area of “learning for computer systems” which aims to replace heuristics with principled solutions grounded in paradigms such as reinforcement learning. An exciting aspect of this line of work is that it not only shows how machine learning can improve systems, but also that systems need innovations in machine learning itself. An early example is a new technique for training reinforcement learning agents in stochastic environments that was inspired by Mohammad’s work on datacenter scheduling. This kind of result has broader applications in other domains, for example robotics control. Says Prof. Jennifer Rexford (Princeton), “Mohammad has fantastic taste in problem selection, and leverages deep knowledge of techniques from other areas (e.g., control theory, machine learning) and a fantastic mastery of the systems stack (e.g., OS, NICs, hardware switches)”.

The VMware Systems Research Award celebrates early-career faculty within the first five years of their first tenure-track appointment. Mohammad, observed VMware Fellow Pratap Subrahmanyam, “has consistently identified challenging systems problems and provided elegant as well as pragmatic solutions”.
This year, the selection committee was chaired by Professor Mike Stonebraker (MIT) and included Ole Agesen (VMware), Professor Edouard Bugnion (EPFL), Professor Greg Ganger (CMU), Professor Charles Isbell (Georgia Tech), Chris Ramming (VMware), Professor Jennifer Rexford (Princeton), and Pratap Subrahmanyam (VMware). Previous recipients have been Matei Zaharia (2016), Tim Kraska (2017), and Tiark Rompf (2018). VMware sees the award as one way to support and give back to the academic research community, which plays a crucial role in exploring new technology and advancing the industry.

–Chris Ramming, Senior Director, VMware Research & Innovation