Hector Garcia-Molina, influential computer scientist and database expert, dies at 65

Over his 40-year academic career, Garcia-Molina helped lay the technological foundations for cloud computing and broke open many new fields with his prolific and innovative scholarship.

A gifted scholar, dedicated teacher and caring colleague, Hector Garcia-Molina, a professor of computer science and of electrical engineering who pioneered some of the database technologies that underlie modern cloud computing, died of cancer on Nov. 25, on the eve of his 66th birthday. “He will be sorely missed,” said Stanford Provost Persis Drell, who became acquainted with Garcia-Molina while she served as dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering.

Hector Garcia-Molina (Image credit: Stanford Engineering)

Jennifer Widom, who is currently dean of the school and had long-standing research collaborations with Garcia-Molina, received an outpouring of messages extolling the humility and wisdom that made him a sought-after mentor.

“His door was always open, and he welcomed everyone with a smile,” Widom said. “Hector served as a mentor to me from the time I arrived as an assistant professor, through succeeding him as chair of the computer science department, to when I became dean.”

A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Garcia-Molina came to Stanford in 1975 to study electrical engineering and computer science, and in 1976 began his PhD studies under the guidance of Gio Wiederhold, now a professor emeritus of computer science. Wiederhold recalls the fearless but shrewd way that Garcia-Molina waded into a new area of research soon known as distributed databases. Today, when we place an order online, we take for granted that warehouses, shipping facilities, banks and other facilities will jointly carry out whatever operations might be needed to complete the transaction. But 40 years ago, the distributed databases that help orchestrate such disparate tasks did not exist.

Wiederhold said Garcia-Molina understood that he needed to establish the legitimacy of his research by publishing a series of papers outlining not only how this technology would work but also how it would be applied in practice. On the personal side, Wiederhold recalls the time a tree fell on his house, and in another instance when a visitor’s car slid off the road, how Garcia-Molina organized volunteers to help. “Hector would see what had to be done and do it,” Wiederhold said.

After earning his PhD in 1979, Garcia-Molina joined the faculty at Princeton, where he helped develop the foundations for a technology called RAID – short for Redundant Array of Independent Disks – which improved database performance by keeping copies of data in locations closer to users while minimizing data losses by providing backups should one disk crash.

Jeffrey Ullman, now a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford, was on the Princeton faculty in 1979 when Garcia-Molina assumed his post there. Many years later, after Ullman moved to Stanford and later became chair of the Department of Computer Science, he helped bring Garcia-Molina back to campus. Garcia-Molina joined the Stanford faculty in 1992, and in 1995 was named the Leonard Bosack and Sandy K. Lerner Professor in Engineering.

“I had the pleasure of recruiting Hector twice,” said Ullman. Ullman’s long association with Garcia-Molina gave him a special appreciation for the latter’s research philosophy. “He believed in finding simple and efficient solutions that got 90 percent of the way toward the best possible, in preference to more complicated, expensive solutions that might be a little better in rare cases,” Ullman said. As a result of this philosophy, many of Garcia-Molina’s papers broke open new fields and were highly cited. He has a remarkable 37 papers with 500 or more citations.

In the mid-1990s, Garcia-Molina together with now emeritus professor Terry Winograd launched the Stanford Digital Libraries Project, a 10-year effort to develop ways to capture, store and filter the many types of information held in traditional libraries. Early student researchers on that project included Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who co-founded Google.

Garcia-Molina advised 57 PhD students during his 40-year academic career. He edited, authored or co-authored nine books and published more than 400 journal articles and refereed conference papers.

In 2001, Garcia-Molina was invited to join the board of directors of Oracle Corporation, a position he held until his death. He forged personal and professional bonds with many leaders of the database company, including founder and chairman Larry Ellison, who offered this statement: “We will all miss his contributions. I will miss Hector’s pleasant and persuasive way of discussing complex ideas. Hector’s gentle and considerate personal style captured my enduring respect and affection.”

Garcia-Molina, who served as chair of the Stanford Department of Computer Science from 2001 through 2004, was the recipient of numerous awards and was recognized by many professional bodies, including the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

“Hector was a rare academic leader and mentor who had no ego getting in the way,” said Andreas Paepcke, a senior research engineer who worked closely with Garcia-Molina for many years. “He was consistently sharing credit, yielding high profile podiums to those who worked with him.”

Garcia-Molina was an official Stanford sports photographer, capturing student athletes at football games and other sporting events. (Image credit: Courtesy Hector Garcia-Molina)

Garcia-Molina was widely known and admired for his professional-level photographic skills, which he shared freely in many ways. He frequently opened his home to create studio-quality portraits for Stanford colleagues, and he was an official Stanford sports photographer, capturing student athletes at football games and other sporting events, with notable favorites being lacrosse, field hockey, soccer, rugby, swimming and water polo.

Perhaps his most far-reaching impact as a serious photographer was his long-running course, CS45N, a freshman introductory seminar on the topic of computers and photography. Tiffany Ong, a senior in computer science who took CS45N in her first year, recalled how Garcia-Molina loaned students digital cameras and organized photographic expeditions to the San Francisco Zoo and Half Moon Bay, or simply led them through the Stanford Quad at night.

When Ong became his teaching assistant in the current offering of CS45N, she experienced Garcia-Molina’s dedication to teaching on a deeper level, as he worked with his teaching assistants to keep the class on track despite his illness. “Because of him, hundreds of students over the years have gained the confidence to become photographers and artists on their own, despite never having touched a camera before the class,” Ong said.

Garcia-Molina is survived by his loving family. The last moments he spent with his son were joyful, reminiscing with old photos after a walk in the California sun.