Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
UA Computer Scientist Has 'Cloud' in View
Larry Peterson, former head of the UA Department of Computer Science, has returned to the University faculty after 15 years at Princeton.
Returning to the University of Arizona after 15 years at Princeton, computer scientist Larry Peterson brings a career of networking expertise to bear on the Internet's next big frontier: the cloud.
Peterson, who was a member of the UA faculty prior to his time at Princeton, maintained his relationships at the UA and spent time in Tucson between semesters. He says his return to campus comes at a good time for both his work as an academic researcher and his role in a non-profit tech company working on open-source software in Silicon Valley. His move comes on the heels of a recent startup experience, in which Peterson – and a business team that included UA computer scientist John Hartman – got to view the business side of the computing world.
"The Internet started out as an experiment. It was an academic project, but once it became so commercially successful, it became something influenced by the market," Peterson said. "That limits how much innovation can happen, and we're trying to open the Internet up so more innovation can happen."
Peterson, who originally joined the UA faculty in 1985, is a preeminent researcher in the areas of computer networks and distributed systems. He says the trend toward cloud computing and more reliance on network-based services for academia and also companies and individual users is a tremendous opportunity for new breakthroughs in computing.
"I've been involved in the Internet pretty much since it got rolled out and very little of it was anticipated. There's a lot that the original architects got right that allowed it to grow the way it has," Peterson said. "The cloud is changing the way computing is done and the way that networks are going to be built. We're trying to help it happen in a way that keeps the opportunities for innovation open."
Winner of the UA's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1995, Peterson says the field of computer science is blossoming as more students see the everyday impact computing has on their lives.
"We are on a lot of students' radar in a much bigger way than before. It used to be more of a geek niche tech, but people now understand how it's applicable to nearly everything in their lives," he said. "Sometimes we talk about the social network movement changed what's possible in computing and people's attitudes toward the value of computing. It's not just a cryptic technical field."
His own interest in computing came out of a desire to take part in what was an exciting new field, where imaginative leaps had the promise to change the way people lived.
"Computing is an endeavor that lets you create. People don't necessarily see it that way, but it's very creative. You're inventing brand-new, never-before-imagined worlds and you make them a reality through programming. You can imagine new ways of connecting people and there are very few rules," he said.
Though relatively small, the UA's computer science department has turned a corner since Peterson served as department head from 1996 to 1998, leveraging its strengths and connections to other campus researchers.
"We can't do all things, but we're trying to create a reputation for doing certain things very well. The cloud is one of those things. It's very related to big data. You have to be able to store it and move it around and process it and draw conclusions from that data," he said. "There's a lot of science going on at the University broadly that's very, very interested in that, medicine and biology in particular have great opportunities.”
Peterson is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery and the recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 2010 Kobayashi Award.