THE INDUSTRY EXPERT: Evangelos Eleftheriou – Achieve results that will make a difference

By Masha Tseveen.

Welcome back for the fourth installment of the Industry Expert interview series.This week we’ll be featuring Dr. Evangelos Eleftheriou from IBM Research – Zurich laboratory, Switzerland. If you missed our previous posts, be sure to check out interview with James Kobielus, Nancy Kopp-Hensley, and Rachel Bland.

Dr. Evangelos EleftheriouDr. Evangelos Eleftheriou received a Diploma degree (5-year program) in Electrical Engineering from the University of Patras, Greece, in 1979, and M.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, in 1981 and 1985, respectively. He joined the IBM Research – Zurich laboratory in Rueschlikon, Switzerland, as a Research Staff Member in 1986. Since 1998, he has held various management positions and in 2008 was named head of the Storage Technologies Department of IBM Research – Zurich, which focuses on phase-change memories, tape drive technologies, solid-state drive technology and systems as well as cloud storage and security. Dr. Evangelos Eleftheriou holds over 90 patents (granted and pending applications). He was named a Master Inventor at IBM Research in 1999, and elected an IBM Fellow in 2005.

A couple of months ago IBM announced the invention of Multi-cloud Storage Toolkit, a new cloud storage software designed to allow customers move across multiple clouds easily. What is the concept behind this technology?

Some of the biggest hurdles to cloud adoption are reliability, security and vendor lock-in. If an enterprise relies on a cloud for its business model, a power failure is unthinkable. Or if the data is stolen, that could be devastating. On the other hand, if you put your data into the cloud and want to switch providers, it can be very challenging to migrate your data to another provider. We thoroughly looked into these dilemmas at IBM Research, and have come up with a solution.

It’s called the Multi-cloud Storage Toolkit and it is based on the idea of a “cloud of clouds”. The main idea behind it is that the security and reliability of multiple clouds exceed that of any one single cloud. So clients can share data across multiple clouds whether they are using Softlayer, an IBM company; Amazon, or Microsoft. The idea being that if one cloud fails for whatever reason the other takes over, transparently to the user. And on top of this, clients benefit from data replication and dispersal, encryption, integrity protection and compression as they would from any one cloud.

How do you see the future of technology?

One aspect I could certainly talk about is the enormous amount of data we are dealing with.  For example, in 1992, 100 Gigabyte of data was transferred per day, whereas today traffic has grown to two Exabytes per day, a 20-million-fold increase. But it comes down to what do we do with all this data and that’s where it gets really exciting.

We are on the cusp of a new phase in the evolution of computing—the era of cognitive systems. The victory of IBM’s Watson on the US TV game show Jeopardy! was just the beginning. Scientists at IBM and in academia are pushing the boundaries of technology with the goal of creating machines that sense, learn, reason and interact with people in new ways. Cognitive systems will help people and organizations penetrate complexity and make better decisions—from the way we treat patients to shopping to how we plan our financial future.

What skill sets should software developers gain in 2014 to stay relevant?

Let me qualify this answer by stating that I am not a software expert. But based on my experience and insights, I would say modern software developers need a solid understanding of the full stack, including cloud compute, storage and networking infrastructure, middleware and application frameworks, and extending to mobile platforms and integrated service delivery systems. Moreover, as security gains in importance at various levels of the stack, software must be built with end-to-end security in mind: today’s cloud-delivered applications and services require software that is secure by design. Also, we are moving to platforms and tools that enable the collection, storage, maintenance, mining and analytics of vast amounts of data. The systems of tomorrow will be able to learn from these “big data” and offer cognitive services. Thus, the engineer of tomorrow needs to be able to ask the right questions to build applications that can make the most out of cognitive systems. The increasing scale and complexity of the modern datacenter mean that managing the entire infrastructure in an automated way is becoming more and more important, and so are experts in configuration management tools for large clusters. And across all the above, open systems and tools are emerging as very important and widely adopted technologies, so developers also need to embrace open tools to build inter-operable systems of higher value.

If you were hiring a Researcher for your team, what qualities would you look for?

We are very selective with our Research Staff Members. Ideally, we would like to have someone first employed as a post-doc to observe his or her technical and leadership potential, and then if he or she is a world-class researcher offer a permanent position. The skills we are looking clearly should be commensurate with the strategic directions of IBM Research and current needs.

Can you tell us more about your professional journey?

Straight after I received my PhD and having heard about IBM’s premiere research lab in Zurich, Switzerland, I decided to move from Canada to Switzerland to be one of the selected high-caliber researchers at IBM’s only European lab at the time. In the 28 years of my career, I was able to benefit from an environment and infrastructure that helped me realize my ideas and insights in an industrial laboratory—which means that I am doing research that will eventually end up in a product and is relevant for society and the world. And this is exactly what I had always wanted to do.

What are the most memorable moments of your career, things that make you smile whenever you think about them?

The most memorable moment, of course, is the first technology transfer of my results into a real product. Another highlight was when the Director of Research called me to tell me that I had just been elected an IBM Fellow, and finally, of course, when I received the prestigious Eduard Rhein Technology Award in 2005 in recognition of my fundamental contributions to the read channel of magnetic recording systems.

What three pieces of advice would you give to people who would like to follow a career path similar to yours?

Have an open mind to change or adapt the direction of your research, if the need arises. Be focused, but at the same time never lose sight of the greater picture. Aim to achieve results that will make a difference, be it to your research area or even to society. Never lose your capacity to be fascinated by ideas, trends and developments because they are the very foundation of original thinking and bold ideas.