Biographical information

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Mark Burgess is the CTO and Founder of CFEngine, formerly professor of Network and System Administration at Oslo University College, and the principal author of the Cfengine software. His the author of numerous books and papers on topics from physics, Network and System Administration, to fiction.

Alternative short

Mark Burgess is the founder, CTO and original author of Cfengine. He resigned as Professor of Network and System Administration at Oslo University College in 2011 where he led the way in theory and practice of automation and policy based management for 20 years. In the 1990s he underlined the importance of idempotent, autonomous desired state management ("convergence") and formalised cooperative systems in the 2000s ("promise theory"). He is the author of numerous books and papers on Network and System Administration and has won several prizes for his work.


Mark Burgess the CTO, Founder and original author of CFEngine. He was senior lecturer and then professor of Network and System Administration at Oslo University College from 1994-2011. He was the first professor with this title. Mark obtained a PhD in Theoretical Physics in Newcastle, for which he received the Runcorn Prize. His current research interests include the behaviour of computers as dynamic systems and applying ideas from physics to describe computer behaviour. Mark is the author of the popular configuration management software package Cfengine, and is the founder, chairman and CTO of the Cfengine company. He led theoretical and practical contributions to the theory of automation and policy based management, including the idea of Operator Convergence and Promise Theory. He is the author of numerous books and papers on Network and System Administration and has won several prizes for his work.


Mark Burgess holds a first class honours degree in Physics from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and a PhD in Theoretical Physics also from Newcastle. After working as a physicist he began to apply the methods of physics to the study of computers and eventually changed research fields to study the formalization of System Administration. His current research interests include the behaviour of computers as dynamic systems and applying ideas from physics to describe computer behaviour. Mark is the author of the popular configuration management software package cfengine. He as received a number of awards including the SAGE 2003 Professional Contribution Award: "For groundbreaking work in systems administration theory and individual contributions to the field. He currently holds the Professorship in Network and System Adminisration at Oslo University College.

Historical - for researchers and interviewers

Mark Burgess is a British citizen and emigré who has lived and worked in Norway since Jan 5 1991.

Burgess took four A levels in Physics, Chemistry and Pure and Applied Mathematics. However, he quickly found that the recipes of organic chemistry did not hold the same interest that physical chemsitry had done previously. Not allowed to give it up formally, he passed with an E and focused on physics and mathematics instead.

As an A-level student, taking the UK's Nuffield Physics programme, Burgess completed a project to demonstrate Optical Activity in microwaves using wax lenses and spiral rings made from coat-hangers. The experiment was inspired by reading the Feynman Lectures on Physics and changed the direction if his interest in science from Astronomy and space (inspired by a love of science fiction, especially Star Trek) to a fascination with force fields.

After briefly considering going to Oxford University close to his home in Banbury, Burgess chose to study Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. This followed a single interview visit to the city. This degree course included contributions from Professsors K. Runcorn and P.C.W. Davies.

After the first year of studies, Burgess' new fascination with electromagnetic fields and field theory moved him to alter course to a new optional direction in "Theoretical Physics" pioneered by P.C.W. Davies. However, when plans for this course fell through, he switched to the general Physics course, even though it included topics like Optics and Electonics that he disliked. Burgess also cites courses in Material Physics as one of the most interesting topics he discovered during A level and BSc education. However, it was during the unwanted course in Optics that he returned to study the phenomenon of optical activity - in an attempt to replace the dull geometrical optics with a more satisfying mathematical approach. His discovery og Arnold Sommerfeld's multi-volume lectures in theoretical physics was a source of inspiration, and he stumbled upon a formulation of optical activity in those books which formed the basis of his own formulation using doubly-complex numbers. This was later used in his book Classical Covariant Fields.

Burgess excelled at theoretical topics, but failed miserably on his final paper in theoretical physics due to a nervous blackout. He still managed to obtain a first class degree by excelling unusually on a general applied physics paper and oral interview (subjects where students traditionally perform poorly).

After turning down a position to work at Edinburgh University on Computational Complexity, Burgess pursued Quantum Field Theory at Newcastle under the tutelage of David Toms, whose work and lecturing style he admired. He intially worked on the Vilkovisky-DeWitt Effective Action, but failing to find the expected results after a year of lengthy calculations, changed course to work on spontaneous symmetry breaking using a `non-Higgs mechanism' termed Flux Breaking by Alan McLachlan, a PhD student from Glasgow University working with Andrew Davis. Burgess completed his PhD in this field in 1990 on the topic of "Gauge Vacua on Mulitply Connected Spacetimes". Towards the end of this thesis, Burgess began to develop an interest in related topological matters, including fractional statistics and `anyons'.

Following the PhD, Burgess secured a two year post-doctoral fellowship from the Royal Society of London. Having befriended several Norwegians at Univeristy, and visited the country for skiing and mountaineering, Burgess wrote to Professor Finn Ravndal, a former student of Richard Feynman, and enquired about possible positions. Ravndal replied that Jon Magne Leinaas who has predicted the notion of fractional statistics together with Jan Myrheim some twenty years earlier, has just taken on a position as Professor there and that they were building a group in this area. Happy with this good luck, Burgess packed his belongings into his car and took the ferry to Stavangar on 5th January 1991, crossing the Norwegian mountains in Winter on balding summer tyres in a memorable adventure.

After two years in the group at Oslo, Burgess was awarded another two years of funds from the Norwegian Research Council. He worked on variety of topics, searching for an area where he could make a contribution, including Thermal Field Theory, Chern Simons induced through radiative corrections, and optical activity in low-dimensional systems. During this time he befriended Nobel Prize winner Julian Schwinger just before his death, and enjoyed several exchanges with Roman Jackiw whose work he admired. Ultimately, Burgess became disillusioned with his progress in physics and worked decided to complete his `epitaph' by writing a book, later published by Cambridge University Press (Classical Covariant Fields), detailing the modern covariant approach to field theory which had started his interest in field theory with David Toms.

It was during this time that Burgess developed an interest in Unix and computer automation. He began writing the popular configuration management tool cfengine in 1993, and presented it at the HEPix conference in Paris. In 1994 he registered Cfengine with the Free Software Foundation, under the GNU Public License.

After three and a half years at the University of Oslo, there was little money in physics and Burgess took on a teaching position at Oslo University College (then Oslo College of Engineering) in computer science and mathematics, following a tip from colleague Øyvind Grøn. He completed the `epitaph' project and began to use his knowledge of physics to study computers in networks as a `natural phenomenon'. Before this computer scientists assumed that computers only exhibited programmed behaviour, but Burgess argued that, in an environment, they were not so easily predictable.

In 1996 Burgess began developing the subject of system administration as a course for the College, and in 1998 he was approached by J. Wiley & Sons to write a book on the subject (Principles of Network and System Administration). In the same year, he won the best paper award for the concept of self-healing computing or `Computer Immunology' at the USENIX LISA conference in Boston. This set a manifesto for research for the next 10 years, which is still underway. In 1997 Burgess met Alva Couch of Tufts University and slowly developed a friendship and eventually collaboration in the area of system configuration and self-healing systems.

In 2001, Burgess discovered a paper which pointed to Morris Sloman's group at Imperial College on policy based computing. Seeing obvious connections with Cfengine, he began to explore the community for Network Management in Europe. In the same year he proposed the creation of a prize for Free and Open Source software development, which was sponsored jointly by the Norwegian Unix User Group (NUUG) and Oslo University College (HIO). The prize has since been awarded each year along with a cash prize and certificate.

In 2003, Burgess reconnected with a physics colleague Geoff Canright who moved to Norway and began at Telenor Research, and became interested in Canright's work on graph theory as applied to search engines. Together with Kenth Engø-Monsen from Telenor, they proposed new solution to improve on the Google PageRank algorithm, which was eventually patented in the US. In the same year 2003, Burgess received the SAGE Professional Contribution Award: "For groundbreaking work in systems administration theory and individual contributions to the field".

2003 was also the year in which Burgess started the International Masters Degree in Network and System Administration at Oslo University College, the first complete master course of its kind in the world. The course immediately attracted applicants from all over the world, and its select students have gone on to highly regarded positions in industry. He wrote the book "Analytical Network and System Administration" in order to fill a gap in the literature for the second year of this masters course.

In 2004 Burgess was contacted by Jan Bergstra of the University of Amsterdam, looking for scientfic backing for a proposed one year masters course at the Univeristy in system administration. In spite of very different backgrounds, they shared a likeness of mind in their attitudes to science and research. This resulted in them becoming friends and going on to discuss and hone several parts of Promise Theory together on mutual visits between Norway and the Netherlands.

In 2005 Burgess became full professor of Network and System Administration at Oslo University College, the first professorship in this field worldwide, as part of the College's strategic focus on Burgess' work. He joined a group of 13 Universities forming a four year European Network of Excellence (EMANICS) in Network Management.

In 2007, once again disillusioned with changing politicization and bureaucratization of research, as well as his failure to consolidate a research group at Oslo, he turned to the success of Cfengine and its appreciative users and decided to form a company to finance future work in the area. The company was formed in 2008 and Burgess took a leave of absence from the University in 2009 to work closely with the appreciative users of Cfengine, and implement the fruits of past research into the software.

Mark burgess has been involved in a number of Free and Open Source projects, including:
  • Cfengine (principal author)
  • CASE: A scientific computing simulator for cellular automata.
  • Fault Cat: fault tree analysis software (project manager)
  • Archipelago: Network analyser
  • The GNU C Tutorial (principal author)
Cfengine has inspired many similar tools, but none of them can show a similar theoretical basis. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the concepts introduced by Mark Burgess such as `convergence of state' and `promises', have become accepted language in the limited sphere of configuration management.