Andrew Birrell

It is with regret that we report the passing of Andrew Birrell, a true luminary in our field. Andrew died peacefully at home on the morning of December 7 after a three-year battle with cancer.

A native of Scotland, Andrew earned his PhD at Cambridge University in 1978 under Roger Needham for his work on the CAP Filing System and system programming in a high-level language. His subsequent career at Xerox PARC, DEC SRC, and Microsoft Research spanned almost four decades. Andrew is perhaps best known for his seminal work on Remote Procedure Call, on the Grapevine system, one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as distributed systems, and on his precise treatise on Programming with Threads. He was not just a distributed systems expert, however. His CV includes important works in such diverse fields as systems architecture, formal methods, low-level OS functionality, and security. Moreover, Andrew was a true systems builder: he took pride from building artifacts from first principles and he had the skill to do so. These skills had real-world impact: his work on practical prototypes of an electronic book reader, an index-based web email system, and a portable music player closely anticipated the commercial offerings that many of us use today.

A recipient of the ACM Software Systems award in 1994, Andrew twice received the SOSP Hall of Fame award for his work on Remote Procedure Call and on Grapevine. He regularly served on SOSP Program Committees and for many years helped SOSP General Chairs by assembling and publishing the digital output of the conference.

Andrew was known not only for his sharp intellect, but also for the keen sense of style represented in all things he designed and built. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that he was also a skilled amateur wood-worker. It was always well understood amongst his colleagues that Andrew’s calm and reasoned voice was worth hearing. His insights have benefited the multiple generations of young researchers who spent time working with him.