Ram Alagappan receives NSF Career Award for revolutionizing storage for data centers

3/28/2024 Iishi Patel

Written by Iishi Patel

Ramnatthan AlagappanRam Alagappan, a computer science professor at The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, focuses on advancing data center storage systems. His research was honored with an NSF Career Award, a prestigious accolade that “supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” 

Alagappan's research revisits data storage methods in data centers and reassesses them in response to the swift evolution of the tech landscape. The storage-stack infrastructure that underpins today’s data center storage services was designed in the pre-data center era, primarily for desktop and on-site computers, and thus is not ideally suited for the high demands placed on modern data centers. Alagappan advocates for building storage stacks tailor-made for modern data center environments. This approach aims to boost efficiency and extend the lifespan of storage hardware, representing a significant step towards sustainable technology practices.

"The short-term goal in the next three to five years for this project is to refine existing storage stack components to better align with data center needs without discarding current infrastructure, which represents significant past investments,” Alagappan says. He aims to fundamentally overhaul data storage systems by transitioning from conventional solid-state drives (SSDs) to a more nuanced, software-centric model. This approach seeks to exploit the raw potential of flash memory chips, the foundational storage components in SSDs, by managing them directly through integrated software. This direct control could unlock unprecedented levels of reliability and efficiency, redefining the storage architecture to be more responsive to the specific demands of modern data centers.

Beyond his research, Alagappan is deeply invested in education and skill development. He has introduced the course CS 598 RAP—Storage Systems: Theory and Practice, which equips students for careers in industry and academia. Additionally, he is developing the "pocket cluster," an accessible, compact cluster using easily available Raspberry Pi devices, to allow high school learners to experiment with and experience distributed systems. 

Alagappan says the award represents not only a personal milestone but also a recognition of the significant efforts made by him and his students, affirming their commitment to addressing issues of importance to the NSF and the wider scientific community. He stresses the importance of hands-on experience for young researchers. He suggests, "Dive into existing systems. There's an abundance of open-source distributed systems available. Experimenting with these can give you a real sense of the field beyond theory."

Share this story

This story was published March 28, 2024.