Brian Gold: Scaled to Serve System Solutions


April 23, 2004

March flew by in a whirlwind for ECE graduate student Brian Gold, a member of the Computer Architecture Lab at Carnegie Mellon (CALCM) working on the Total Reliability Using Scalable Servers (TRUSS) project. Although he is only in his second semester, the Newport News, VA, native found out he won two selective awards — the Northrop Grumman Fellowship for 2003-2004 and the 2004-2005 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship.

"Brian is one the key players in the TRUSS project, an industry and government-funded research project designing scalable non-stop computer systems," says his advisor, Babak Falsafi, Associate Professor of ECE and CS. "The key premise behind TRUSS is to use inexpensive hardware building blocks — e.g., Intel-based compute blades — redundantly to build systems that have no single point of failure, while scaling both in cost and performance. Brian's current focus is on innovating hardware protocols to allow redundant nodes in a distributed system compute synergistically."

Following a nationwide competition with students beginning their doctoral study in mathematical, physical, biological, ocean, and engineering sciences, Brian was selected for the NDSEG award, which will cover his tuition and stipend over three years. ECE alumni Adam Zelinski (B.S. and M.S. ECE; 2003) also won the NDSEG Fellowship and now works for Northrop Grumman. As a Northrop Grumman Fellow, Brian can complete a summer internship at one of the company's facilities, like Adam did in 2002.

When Brian is not exploring solutions to today's problems in reliable computing, you might find him discovering a new trail in the park with his wife and great dane, or enjoying a performance of the opera, symphony, or ballet. Let's catch up with our newest award winner, on and off the hardware path...

What does it feel like to be a fellow?

It's a huge honor. For the NDSEG Fellowship, which is sponsored by the Department of Defense (DOD), there were 170 fellowship recipients out of 3,215 applications. Numbers like that are mind boggling!

In some ways, the Northrop Grumman Fellowship was even more surprising because I know the caliber of CMU's ECE students, and the fellowship winners were selected from ECE students here after an interview with each of the nominees. To be selected from such a talented group means a lot to me.

What are some of the benefits of your fellowships?

I get to meet with the management at Northrop Grumman's Electronic Systems sector and discuss my research work and hear about the problems they're working on. My NDSEG fellowship is sponsored by the High Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP), and I certainly hope my fellowship brings interaction between our computer architecture research and the HPCMP people.

What attracted you to ECE at CMU?

I considered a number of "top" schools before choosing CMU. It was an easy choice in the end. I came here because of the community atmosphere that exists in the department and the computer architecture lab (CALCM). The faculty and students made it clear to me at the open house that they wanted me here, and that sort of attention heavily influenced my decision.

Pittsburgh itself was very attractive to my wife and me. The low cost of living and abundance of local and regional activities were a great fit for us.

What is the best part of the ECE degree from CMU?

Working on interesting problems that other people outside of academia care about.

What are your research interests?

I'm broadly interested in computer architecture. More specifically, I'm interested in processor design that treats reliability, power, and complexity as first-class citizens. Performance is still key, but these and other concerns are becoming increasingly important.

I'm working with the TRUSS group. Our goal is to build reliable, scalable server systems that use near-commodity hardware and unmodified OS and application software.

What are some of the challenges of your work?

We've pigeon-holed ourselves into this nearly impossible problem: build scalable servers that provide reliable computation without touching the microprocessor core or OS/application software. The upside is tremendous: we'll be able to run large, existing database applications on hardware that scales in size just like current, unreliable servers do. With such a high payoff, the challenges are also tremendous, but we have a bunch of exceptional people and firmly believe we know how to achieve these goals.

What is your favorite course so far?

I thought 18-760, VLSI Logic to Layout, with Jatras Professor of ECE Rob Rutenbar, was one of the best courses I've ever taken. Rutenbar has an uncanny ability to translate difficult, often dry subjects into tangible, interesting material. His presentation skills are second to none, and he places a heavy emphasis on our ability as students to describe the work we're doing.

For which class are you doing a teaching assistantship (TA)?

I'm the TA for 18-742, Multiprocessor Computer Architecture, with Associate Professor of Robotics and ECE Andreas Nowatzyk, this semester.

Have you been to any conferences or had any publications so far?

I attended last year's International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA), a major computer architecture conference. I've published a few papers scattered across the myriad of areas I've found myself in, such as neural networks for intelligent control, computational and experimental electromagnetics, and most recently in computer architecture.

What organizations are you involved in?

I helped out at a few of the EGO events and am a member of IEEE, Tau Beta Pi (engineering honor society), Eta Kappa Nu (ECE honor society), and Phi Beta Kappa.

How did you decide upon Engineering as a career path?

I was always interested in problem solving in a very applied way, i.e. taking concepts and really building solutions. My dad is an engineer as well, and I think growing up in an atmosphere that encouraged critical thinking and problem solving had a lot to do with my own career path.

Where did you go to school before coming here?

I received B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Computational Mathematics, as well as a M.S. in Computer Engineering, all from Virginia Tech.

Have you worked in ECE previously?

I've worked as an intern for NASA Langley, a department of energy particle accelerator, and most recently, I was at the Naval Research Lab working on large computational electromagnetics problems. I started a company with some friends during my undergraduate work, which was later acquired by Wireless Valley Communications (WVC), a startup led by Ted Rappaport, who is a professor at UT-Austin. I worked as a software engineer for WVC for a year and a half before going to graduate school.

Have you won any other awards?

In addition to these two fellowships, I received a NSF fellowship in 2001, which supported me during my master's work at Virginia Tech. As an undergraduate, I had a scholarship that paid for my tuition and other expenses at Virginia Tech.

What do you like to do outside of the classroom?

My wife and I have a pretty big dog (a 120 lb. great dane). The dog makes sure we get outside, and we frequently take her hiking through the various parks in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas.

What do you think about Pittsburgh?

We love it here. We moved from the Washington, D.C. area, which has a lot to offer but is overly expensive and crowded. Pittsburgh is a great change of pace - we get to do things like go to the opera, symphony, ballet, etc., but don't have to worry about the epic adventure of going into 'the city.' There are a lot of social things to do here, and we've found it easy to take advantage of them.

What are your plans after graduation?

I'd like to work in a research lab in industry. But I've got a way to go, so anything's possible.

Do you have any advice to aspiring engineers?

I'm a firm believer in balance. Work hard, but find or make time to enjoy things outside of school or work. Your net results will be better in the end.

Come to CMU -- you won't be disappointed!

Brian with his great dane.