Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • ALEXANDER G. FRASER (1937-2022)
    ALEXANDER G. FRASER

     

    BY BRIAN KERNIGHAN

    ALEXANDER G. FRASER, the inventor of virtual circuit switching and a key contributor to data networking, died on June 13, 2022, at age 85.

    Born in Surrey, England, on June 8, 1937, Sandy spent the war years with his family in Lancashire, where his father was a research chemist. He earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Bristol University in 1958. He began his career at Ferranti and then went to Cambridge University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1969. He joined Bell Labs, where he became director of the Computing Science Research Center in 1982, executive director in 1987, and associate vice president for information science research in 1994.

    While at Ferranti, Sandy developed Nebula, a language and compiler for the Sirius computer, and at Cambridge he developed the file system for the Atlas 2 (Titan) computer. After joining Bell Labs, his attention turned to computer networking. He invented cell-based networks, the precursor to asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), one of the foundational protocols of modern data communications. His work on virtual circuit switching was a great innovation that found its way not only into ATM but also more recently into software-defined networking. He also developed Datakit, the first virtual circuit network switch, which became the backbone of the AT&T telecommunications network.

    In the late 1980s, Sandy created the Experimental Universities Network project to promote graduate research on computer networks. Eight universities and labs across the country were connected by a network of Datakit virtual circuit switches joined by high-speed links to provide a wide-area systems research laboratory in which student researchers could run network experiments.

    In 1996, when AT&T spun off Lucent and Bell Labs, Sandy led the effort to establish Shannon Labs (AT&T Labs Research) in Florham Park, New Jersey. He was vice president for research there for two years, after which he became AT&T’s chief scientist.

    In 2002, Sandy retired from AT&T and formed Fraser Research in Princeton, New Jersey, where he continued his research and provided summer internships for a few select graduate students interested in networking.

    Although Sandy’s research focused primarily on networking, he was also interested in the benefits that improved networks could provide. Believing that home audio and video would require large amounts of bandwidth, he recognized and nurtured technologies that connected people to the internet using cable TV channels, a variety of wireless approaches, and fiber optics.

    In the late 1990s Sandy developed a plan for a network architecture to bring high-speed networking to the home, a capability that is now taken for granted but was almost unknown 25 years ago. Realizing that the new network infrastructure would need a business justification, Sandy promoted research projects that would “fill the pipes.”

    Among these projects was high-fidelity audio. Sandy encouraged research on perceptual audio encoding and participation in ISO MPEG, resulting in the MPEG Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) international standard. He contracted for the development of innovative test platforms for AAC, including the Euphony processor, one of the first system-on-chip microprocessors. Euphony was the “brains” of one of the first solid-state music players, FlashPAC, which was used to demonstrate AAC to potential adopters. Today AAC is deployed on every smartphone worldwide and is used by Spotify and Apple Music.

    Sandy identified critical problems and proposed elegant and efficient solutions. Both personally and in his managerial role, he put those solutions into practice that changed the world. Sandy was completely behind every aspect of the work; yet for many of his contributions, his name does not appear at all. He worked quietly and powerfully behind the scenes, multiplying his effectiveness by remaining in the background.

    A superb manager of technical work and fully capable of doing pretty much anything on his own, he devoted most of his time as a research manager to helping his colleagues do their best work. Among the numerous examples, Bjarne Stroustrup (NAE 2004) started work on what became the C++ programming language to support Sandy’s network simulation experiments.

    He put great thought and care into the physical and organizational design of the Shannon Laboratories space for AT&T Labs Research, with an eye toward creating the kind of research culture he wanted to foster.

    Sandy received numerous awards for his pioneering contributions to the architecture of communication networks through the development of virtual circuit switching technology. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the British Computer Society and the IEEE. He was a life member of the Association for Computing Machinery. He received the 1989 Koji Kobayashi Computers and Communications Award “for contributions to computer communications and the invention of virtual-circuit switching,” the Association for Computing Machinery 1992 SIGCOMM Award for “pioneering concepts, such as virtual circuit switching, space-division packet switching, and window flow control,” and the 2001 IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal “for pioneering contributions to the architecture of communication networks through the development of virtual circuit switching technology.” He held more than 20 patents.

    As a young man, Sandy was an avid cyclist, going on weekly rides with the local club (a passion he passed on to his sons). He enjoyed building and creating things and always had a workshop. He also loved being outside in nature. He was quiet, thoughtful, kind, and a wonderful colleague, manager, and friend. He is survived by his wife, Elisabeth, and his sons Tim and Ben and their families.