Cyclone Engineer Mai Zheng receives prestigious NSF CAREER award

Mai Zheng, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award to improve computer storage systems’ ability to protect data during crashes and other disruptions.

CAREER awards are the NSF’s most prestigious awards given to early-career faculty. The support aims to build a firm foundation for leadership in integrating research and education. Zheng will receive more than $500,000 over the next five years to support his project.

Building blocks of modern life

Storage systems are the fundamental computing building block of our modern lives – and like physical building blocks, computer storage systems must function well in fair weather as well as sudden disturbances to keep data safe.

“Storage robustness is crucial to systems ranging from financial institutions, where downtime can result in millions of dollars lost, to scientific computing, where the generated data advances any number of challenges facing humanity,” said Zheng.

The problem of system robustness and crash consistency is decades old, but creating realistic test crash events isn’t easy and the task grows more difficult as storage technology becomes more complex. Zheng will address the longstanding problem by creating a new flexible, scalable framework for thoroughly testing the crash consistency of many different storage systems.

Measure, model, make automatic

Zheng plans a three-part approach. He’ll design a comprehensive suite of benchmarks that can be used to drive storage stacks to vulnerable states and measure crash consistency. Next, he’ll leverage virtualization technology to model and generate realistic crash events for triggering vulnerabilities.

Zheng’s team will also create a crash consistency exploration engine that will enable automatic testing. And all work will be done in partnership with leading industry storage system makers to ensure tools are useful to real-world challenges.

“My belief is that storage systems should never lose data, no matter what happens,” said Zheng. “Combined together, these developments and collaborations are a crucial step toward the goal of truly robust storage systems.”

Next-gen data protectors

“Tomorrow’s advances in storage systems will only be possible with an inclusive next generation of engineers, so I’m excited that my CAREER project also includes targeted education and outreach,” said Zheng.

Zheng will develop a dedicated storage system course at Iowa State to give students in-depth knowledge and techniques in storage hardware, software and optimization. Zheng will also work with established Iowa State programs designed to increase diversity in STEM, including Science Bound and IINSPIRE-LSAMP.

“Protecting data is a pressing need that touches every corner of today’s computer-driven world – and Mai’s CAREER project takes on key challenges to storage system robustness,” said W. Samuel Easterling, James L. and Katherine S. Melsa Dean of Engineering. “Congratulations to Mai on a CAREER award that will make important contributions to his field and inspire future Cyclone Engineers to do the same.”

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