Nicol receives ACM SIGSIM Distinguished Contributions Award

ECE News

Lauren Eichmann, ECE Illinois

Story Highlights

  • Professor David Nicol was selected unanimously for the ACM Special Interest Group on Simulation (SIGSIM) Distinguished Contributions Award.
  • Criteria for the award include service in simulation societies, editorial responsibilities in simulation publications, conference management and simulation education experience, published technical work in scholarly journals, and the mentorship of colleagues.

ECE David M. Nicol was awarded the ACM Special Interest Group on Simulation (SIGSIM) Distinguished Contributions Award at the Winter Simulation Conference in early December. This is a newly-established award that will annually recognize one individual who has had various roles in regards to service in simulation societies, editorial responsibilities in simulation publications, conference management and simulation education experience, published technical work in scholarly journals, and the mentorship of colleagues or co-workers.

David M. Nicol
David M. Nicol

According to ACM SIGSIM Chair Simon Taylor, "the nominating committee noted that Dr. Nicol had had numerous and significant contributions in virtually every one of the criteria," and selected him unanimously. The SIGSIM group currently has around 550 members and sponsors twelve conferences annually.

Nicol said he had no idea he was the award recipient while they were announcing the honor. "I was thinking how it was a good idea that they had (implemented) the award," he said. "I hadn’t been at that particular business meeting when they had decided they were going to do that. One of the things about the Winter Simulation Conference is that it is sponsored by six different organizations. Only one other of the organizations is as active as ACM SIGSIM at having best paper presentations and various kinds of awards," he continued. "As they were going through how ACM has instituted this award, I went ‘well that’s good.’ I thought it was good that ACM was creating more of a presence with the award. When they discussed the qualifications and then put my name up on the screen, I was like, ‘oh! That’s me,’" he said with a laugh. "I’m honored of course. But there are a bunch of really smart and very productive people in this (field), and I’m looking forward to nominating them."

Nicol, who in addition to his appointment in ECE is a faculty member in the Coordinated Science Lab, received a plaque to commemorate the honor and will make a written statement specifying his vision of the future of simulation that will be posted on the ACM SIGSIM Web site.

For the past few years, Nicol had dedicated his research to dealing with networking, particularly in the field of better understanding the impact of cyber-attacks. He said "this gives rise to a bunch of problems when there is phenomenon that are of critical interest that have to do with armies of compromised computers that are coordinated to do something harmful."

Currently, he is developing the core theoretical underpinning of the simulation discipline in a context that is of equivocal importance, he said. "When one’s doing computing or writing programs, you can just sit down and do it, and come up with something," said Nicol. "It might work for the one single example you have it programmed for, but without understanding what the principles are that make it work well, then someone else isn’t able to look at that piece and use it for their own work."

He said simulation is all about algorithms, modeling and mathematical representations of physical systems. "The science that’s in the algorithms and the modeling is stuff that’s always been really interesting to me," Nicol added. "And what we try to push is science in contexts where the science that is needed is motivated by real life examples."

To better study this, Nicol and other researchers with Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIP), an Information Trust Institute center, have collaborated in an effort to build a test bed to simulate computer attacks and the evaluation of security software. According to Nicol, it will allow for the future study of "architectures for controlling the electrical generation and distribution system in the U.S., and predicting technology trends relating to security problems so that we can better protect the computer and communication systems that are running a power grid."

To do that, the TCIP project is pursuing multiple courses of action. Nicol’s responsibility is to specifically develop the technology to evaluate the other security technologies. In a room outfitted with real equipment used in a power grid, computers play a role in control systems with simulators.

Such a simulator has been developed by ECE Professor Thomas Overbye. Known as PowerWorld, it simulates the generation and distribution of electricity. According to Nicol, the test bed offers an unparalleled capability unlike anything anyone else had done before: very large-system models can be evaluated. "Here, you’re simulating what’s happening in the power grid, the equipment that controls it, and the people that control it as well," said Nicol. "In this test bed we have the simulated stuff, the real stuff - the kinds of attacks that could be done on the Internet, flaws in hardware - and simulation where a computer can be playing the role of another computer running software. It’s giving a picture of what the Internet would look like if it was under attack and someone is having to make decisions about how to deal with it."

Nicol has around half a dozen graduate students working with him on the research. "Our objective is that the models, tools, and results we come up with be useful to researchers like ourselves, and to end users."

Among Nicol’s contributions to his field include presently serving as editor for the journal Performance Evaluation and as former editor-in-chief for ACM Transactions on Modeling and Computer Systems - for which he now serves in an advisory manner. He has also been general and program chair for various conferences, including Quantitative Evaluation of Systems (QEST). He currently teaches ECE 422: Introduction to Information Assurance, and his past courses include ECE 541: Computer Systems Analysis, ECE 462 (an undergraduate course on logic design), and graduate courses on hardware-based computer security and discrete event simulation. He is co-author of a widely used textbook, Discrete-Event Systems Simulation.

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