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Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Database Group: A hidden Wisconsin powerhouse

Discover one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s most influential research groups.

 In the world of science, companies and universities are continuously researching and innovating across fields. However, there is one sector that is becoming increasingly essential: computer science.  

Many of us have come to know the vitality of software and technology. However, what you might not know is there is a hidden gem nestled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's 13th-ranked U.S computer science department: the Database Group. 

UW-Madison’s Database Group has been one of the world’s most influential database departments, consistently ranking at or near the top in international rankings for the past 50 years. Since its creation, the group states it has earned numerous awards, generated projects such as deploying Cloud Matcher code at American Family Insurance, and taught UW-Madison students who later went on to work for companies like Microsoft and Google. 

Despite these accomplishments, they're far from finished. So, where is this powerhouse sourced from?

The Database Group is a faculty research team led by Dr. Anhai Doan, Dr. Paris Koutris and Dr. Xiangyao Yu, with Doan as the group's most senior member. They self-describe as specializing in technology, such as relational databases, cloud-native databases, data modeling and data integration. These types of technology deal with data storage and data implementation. 

In a conversation with The Daily Cardinal, the Database Group said they believe their research has the potential to impact the world as it forms the foundation for many of our current and future technologies, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and cloud computing. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, they said their research was primarily centered on relational databases, which are data management systems that entailed organizing data into rows and columns to form tables. 

With this focus, the Database Group was able to dive deep and provide incredibly insightful and vital information to grow the relational database field. This groundbreaking research was unprecedented, establishing the Database Group as a unique and influential group that would affect database systems for years to come. 

“We were making a widespread impact and did a major part in growing the relational database industry into a multibillion dollar industry,” Doan said. 

With that momentum, the Database Group was able to innovate and research continually in the broad field of database systems, propelling Madison Computer Science to reach new highs.

The Database Group currently ranks as third in the country, according to 

Doan said that since he began working at UW-Madison, the Database Group has exploded in popularity with new research being established in various subareas, including social media data, the cloud and advanced relational databases. 

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For example, Koutris’s homepage advertises that they have conducted research focusing on the foundational aspect of data management, which includes theoretical models and core fundamental problems in data processing. Koutris said their research has earned various awards, including the SIGMOD Jim Grey Dissertation award and the Test of Time award in 2023. 

Yu is a relatively new UW-Madison faculty member, having joined the university in 2020. However, he has already started to propel the database group into the vast world of cloud databases, which are databases deployed, delivered and accessed in the cloud. 

Given the relative novelty of the cloud, Yu said cloud research is “almost driven by industry demand,” causing Yu to try to build “a tighter connection with the industry, like companies such as Microsoft, Google, Oracle and Snowflake.” 

“Data growth is exponential, there will be a constant need to face new problems,” Yu said. He called this a “fundamental reason” to work on cloud databases.

The Database Group credits two distinguishing characteristics with their massive and continuous success in the field. 

First, the group said they research pressing problems, which they then deploy to real users to learn and improve upon their solutions. Second, they are a user-driven research group, meaning they focus on the system aspect of the solution, build systems that real users could use and work very closely with the industry.

Additionally, besides conducting a variety of research to benefit the database field, the group also said they play a large part in developing UW-Madison’s prestige. 

For example, the Database Group played a significant role in creating the new School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences, which was created in 2018. The building is set to open in 2025. Similarly, the Database Group also aids other university departments in managing the vast quantity of data they receive, allowing for more efficient research.

Doan and Koutris said the group's goal is to "grow significantly" and expand its faculty and research focus in the future. The group aims to specialize through additions to the group in theoretical foundations of database systems, machine learning and data science. 

“I hope to invest and grow at the intersection of databases in machine learning and AI,” Koutris said. “Whether that be through the direction of how the database group can help AI or how the database group can use machine learning at AI to help build better data management systems.” 

The strategic shift of investing in data science and AI could revolutionize the group, allowing them to conduct fundamental data management research and develop next-generation database systems, all while continuing to impact the industry and society.

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