Meet Chancellor’s Professor Michael Franz

Chancellor’s Professor Dr. Michael Franz’s research background lies in the area of programming languages and compilers, but from the start of his career, he has been exploring new directions at the edges of the field rather than working solely at the core of a sub-discipline. He was an early pioneer of the idea of machine independent code and just-in-time compilation. His 1994 dissertation “Code Generation On-The-Fly: A Key to Portable Software” was published two years before the appearance of Java brought the ideas of portable code and just-in-time compilation to widespread attention. His later work on continuous profile-guided optimization still informs ongoing research efforts in industry today.

Prof. Michael FranzIn the early 2000s, Franz and his student Andreas Gal (Ph.D. 2006) invented a new way of building compilers using “trace trees” (on which a U.S. patent has been awarded that the University of California has donated for the use of the open-source community). Franz realized this invention could have a huge effect on the nascent “Web 2.0” paradigm. When he started applying these ideas to JavaScript compilation, no one was working on lightweight compilers for dynamically typed languages such as JavaScript. Today, every major web browser has a JavaScript compiler built in.

Franz was able to convince the leadership of Mozilla (the nonprofit open-source organization behind the Firefox web browser) of the virtues of this approach. In a joint project between Mozilla and Franz’s lab at UCI, they developed the first-ever JavaScript just-in-time compiler (“TraceMonkey”) and incorporated it into the Firefox web browser, a substantial risk since the new compilation method had never been used in a “real world” context. The project was an unqualified success, enabling Firefox to retain its relevance for many years even as new competitors such as Google’s Chrome emerged. At its peak, several hundred million users were using this software every day. Mozilla subsequently also adopted the “Compartmental Memory Management” technique developed in Franz’s laboratory and incorporated it into Firefox. Originally designed to enhance browser security, as a nice side effect it also improves performance.

Hence, in addition to advancing the discipline, through his partnership with the open-source community, Franz has also impacted people’s everyday lives. His invention sped up the processing of Web 2.0 apps in the browser, such as Gmail, by 700% on average while requiring much less memory than previous methods. This game-changer made it practical to run such web apps on much lower-powered computers than was previously possible – helping bridge the “digital divide” and broadening participation in the digital economy.

More recently, Franz has turned his main research focus to computer security, and has focused on unconventional solutions. He is considered one of the fathers of the field of “Moving Target Cyber-Defenses.” At the center of his research in this area has been the idea of using compiler technology to generate a large number of different software binaries, similar to biodiversity in nature.

Prof. Franz received the Diplomingenieur and Doctor of Technical Sciences degrees from ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. He joined UCI as an Assistant Professor in 1996. He is now a Full Professor of Computer Science in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and holds a courtesy appointment as a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering. In 2016, the University awarded him the title of distinction “Chancellor’s Professor.”

Franz has graduated 28 Ph.D. students as primary advisor to date. He serves on the editorial boards of three journals, including IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing, which is the top archival journal in the field of computer security. Franz has been awarded five United States Patents and has published more than 150 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

Prof. Franz is a Fellow of both the ACM and IEEE. He is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, the NSF CAREER Award, the IEEE Computer Society’s Technical Achievement Award, the UCI Applied Innovation Innovator of the Year Award, and the Humboldt Research Award.

To learn more, visit Prof. Franz’s website.

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: