One of the leading academic experts on databases has come out of retirement to help Microsoft scale SQL Server.

David DeWitt's journey to becoming one of the world's leading academic experts on databases started off almost by accident. "I had taken one database class in graduate school," DeWitt recalled. "That was enough that when I showed up as a new faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (in the mid-1970s), the chairman said, 'You're the new database guy.'"

DeWitt took the ball and ran with it. After three decades in the field, DeWitt's resume includes the co-invention of three parallel databases, including one that was sold to NCR, publication of more than 100 technical papers and numerous awards and honors from his database peers.

DeWitt retired from the University of Wisconsin last year. But now he has returned, this time as a Microsoft Technical Fellow and head of a new database research center located on the Madison campus and funded primarily by his new employer.

DeWitt will talk about the center during a keynote speech Friday at the Professional Association for SQL Server's annual conference, which is taking place this week in Seattle.

The confab has 2,500 attendees, many coming to learn about Microsoft 's recently released SQL Server 2008 or hear about Microsoft's roadmap as it attempts to move into the high-end business intelligence arena dominated by Teradata and small data warehousing appliance vendors.

On Wednesday, Microsoft demonstrated a feature that will let DBAs manage pools of hundreds of SQL Server databases at a time.

For DeWitt, the lab is an opportunity to do the same sort of research he has done for the past 32 years, but also see those results make their way into products, namely SQL Server, in a much shorter time frame.

It also gives DeWitt the financial backing that computer science academics, especially those in the database field, have lost in recent years.

"Researching query optimization on parallel systems - this is not something you can go to NSF or DARPA and get money for anymore," DeWitt said. But he added that cutting-edge database research was already shifting away from academia to industry.

"In the old days, you could take a small group of grad students and build a state-of-the-art prototype of a database system," he said. "Systems are so complex these days, it's hard to make headway with only five grad students."

Also, "the smartest students from abroad don't come for their [computer science] Ph.Ds anymore, they go and join investment banks," DeWitt continued. "So industry has really taken over a leadership role. It's one reason I left academia."

DeWitt would also love to taste some of the "success after success" of a good friend of his, database industry legend Michael Stonebraker.

A professor at both UC Berkeley and MIT, Stonebraker is generally credited with helping invent two seminal databases, Ingres and Postgres. The former underlies popular products such as Microsoft's SQL Server, Sybase's Adaptive Server Enterprise, Ingres's eponymous product, IBM's Informix and others, while the latter is an emerging open-source database.

Just as important, Stonebraker started companies that helped bring to market those databases, along with other lesser-known ones, such as his current venture, column-based data warehousing vendor, Vertica Systems.

"My goal is to short-circuit the process from research to product line," said DeWitt, who noted that he works directly for the Data and Storage Division at Microsoft that produces SQL Server, not Microsoft Research. "We absolutely want to be more market-responsive and nimble."

The lab will be named after Microsoft database researcher Jim Gray, who was lost at sea last year. Gray not only helped build products such as SQL Server, he co-operated with many in academia such as DeWitt, who considered Gray a close friend and mentor.

The Microsoft Jim Gray Systems Lab has three researchers today. "It will top out at between 10-15 people," DeWitt said. In general, research produced by the lab will be owned by the university, though Microsoft gets non-exclusive royalty-free access to the patents. However, research by grad students that doesn't draw upon Microsoft confidential materials will be owned by the students themselves, DeWitt said.

DeWitt plans to initially focus on query optimisation.

"It's one area in which there's been very little progress" in the past three decades, DeWitt said. He plans to test an approach that "does a little optimisation, a little execution, and so forth."

If successful, this could make its way into upcoming Microsoft data warehousing appliances code-named Madison, which DeWitt swears was not his doing. Those appliances are due in the first half of 2010.