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Computer Science Professors Receive $1M NSF Award for Distributed Systems Research

Distributed systems

Yanhong Annie Liu and Scott Stoller, professors in the Department of Computer Science within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Stony Brook University, have been awarded a four-year $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their research project, “Configuration for Assurance: Safe, Live and Secure Distributed Systems.”

Distributed systems — where multiple computers communicate with each other by sharing messages — are an essential part of our modern lives, from large databases and social networks to telecommunications and mobile systems. Whether for distributed transactions or distributed storage, including contact tracing during the current pandemic, distributed algorithms are at the core. Algorithms are what direct computer programs to take steps to solve problems. They must be precise, reliable and efficient to achieve their goals, and this is at the heart of Liu’s decades of research.

Computer science, distributed systems nsf1“Distributed processes and communications are prone to many kinds of failures depending on the underlying infrastructures,” said Liu. “We are developing an integrated language for declarative specification and configuration to help ensure safe, live and secure execution of distributed algorithms despite failures.”

She and her research team developed the language DistAlgo with the goal of more efficient development of distributed algorithms. DistAlgo aids distributed algorithms and systems to be more easily detailed, implemented and verified to guarantee that the systems perform as intended on the internet.

Most users don’t consider how things work within apps or websites, yet these intricate processes are responsible for all of the online transactions that people make. When people purchase something from an online vendor, they enter their request, which is then reproduced across multiple servers, as opposed to a single one, so a backup server will take over in case the primary server fails. When multiple servers receive a client request, they reach a consensus on the status of the payment and shipment. Distributed algorithms coordinate these processes, making the entire e-commerce market run properly.

“Assurance for safe, live and secure distributed systems is critical for increasingly distributed yet interconnected and interdependent computer systems and applications,” said Liu. “Applying our methods and tools to these algorithms will help make them easier to understand, validate and deploy.”

About the Researchers

Annie Liu

Annie Liu is a professor of Computer Science at Stony Brook University. She received her BS from Peking University, MEng from Tsinghua University and PhD from Cornell University, all in Computer Science. Her primary research is in languages and algorithms, especially on systematic design and optimization, centered around incrementalization — the discrete counterpart of differentiation in calculus. Her current research focus is on languages and efficient implementations for secure distributed programming and for declarative system specifications. She has published in many prestigious venues, taught in a wide range of computer science areas, and presented more than 100 conference and invited talks worldwide. She serves on the ACM Books Editorial Board as the area editor for programming languages, and she is a member of IFIP WG 2.1 on Algorithmic Languages and Calculi.

Scott StollerScott D. Stoller is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University. His primary research interests are design, analysis, optimization, testing and verification of software, with focuses on computer security, distributed systems and incremental computation. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics, summa cum laude, from Princeton University and his PhD degree in computer science from Cornell University. He received an NSF CAREER Award in 1999, an ONR Young Investigator Award in 2002, the NASA Turning Goals into Reality Award for Engineering Innovation in 2003 (as a member of the Java PathFinder team) and Best Paper Awards in 2005, 2011 and 2016. He is the author or co-author of more than 120 refereed research publications.

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