Burgess was born in Maghull in the United Kingdom to English parents. He grew up in Bloxham, a small village in Oxfordshire from the age of 5-18, attending Bloxham Primary School, Warriner Secondary School and Banbury Upper School. He studied astrophysics at the (then) School of Physics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he later switched to pure Physics and then Theoretical Physics for his bachelor's degree. He stayed on to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy in Theoretical Physics in Newcastle, in the field of Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking in Non-Abelian Gauge Theories, for which he received the Runcorn Prize.
Burgess pursued a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Oslo in Norway, where he later became the first professor with a title in Network and System administration. While at the University of Oslo he developed an interest in the behaviour of computers as dynamic systems and began to apply ideas from physics to describe computer behaviour.
Burgess is perhaps best known as the author of the popular configuration management software package CFEngine, but has also made important contributions to the theory of the field of automation and policy based management, including the idea of operator convergence and promise theory.
Burgess has made contributions to theoretical and empirical computer science, mainly in the area of the behaviour of computing infrastructure and services. In the early 1990s, Burgess asserted that programmatic models of computer programs could not describe observed behaviour at the macroscopic scale, and that statistical physics could be used instead, thus likening artificial systems to a quasi-natural phenomenon. With the increasing interest in the role of information in physics, Burgess has argued that computer science and physics can be bridged using the concepts of promise theory, through the notion of semantic spacetime, a description of functional aspects of spacetime at multiple scales, which offers an alternative to Robin Milner's theory of bigraphs.
In 1993, Burgess introduced the software CFEngine based in intuitions and practice, focusing on the idea of repeatable desired end-state `convergence', to manage system configuration. The term convergence, used by Burgess, is now often inaccurately just called idempotence, as convergence in his meaning implied both desired end-state and idempotence of an error correction operator at the desired end-state. Shifting interest from Theoretical Physics to Computer Science, Burgess then began to explore the ad hoc choices initially made, and set out to find a scientific method for understanding such choices in computing systems.
Following a position paper `manifesto' pointing out the research challenges needed to make self-repairing systems, Burgess undertook to study computer systems as a number of empirical phenomena, taking an approach based on physics to learn first about the scales and patterns. The idea of self-healing, or self-maintaining systems was originally referred to as Computer Immunology, as it was inspired by research into the Danger model of human immune systems. The empirical studies were published in various formats between 1999 and 2003, culminating in a journal summary review, and a more practical method for automated machine learning of system behavioural characters. This incorporated the idea of so-called exponential smoothing (which was called a geometric average) for fast learning, along with a two-dimensional, cylindrical time model which was based on the result that network client-server traffic would be expected to behave like a quasi-periodic stochastic function (a characteristic of a system driven close to equilibrium).
The notion of an equilibrium or steady state operation thus became the baseline, replacing arbitrary thresholds used in the monitoring software of the day. The software CFEngine became the proof of concept platform using these methods for system state anomaly detection, from 2002 to the present, and received widespread use.
Based on these fundamental empirical studies, Burgess argued for two kinds of theoretical model to describe systems, which he called type 1 and type 2. Type 1 models were dynamical performance models that described machines as changing phenomena. Type 2 were semantic models, concerning the efficacy and influence of human decisions on behaviour, called policy, or desired-state computing. He later developed these further and made connection with Claude Shannon's work on error correction in a paper discussing how separation of timescales plays an important role in computer science, by analogy with physics. With Trond Reitan, Burgess showed that the question of when was the optimal time to backup data could be answered scientifically.
The studies carried out between 1998 and 2002 led to a monograph Analytical Network and System Administration: Managing Human-Computer Systems. Although quite comprehensive about some aspects of systems, Burgess identified a missing piece to the story, namely how to describe distributed cooperation between computers in networks. This prompted later work, which became Promise Theory, proposed at the Distributed Systems, Operations and Management conference in Barcelona in 2005.
The computer science community has had a mixed response to the hybrid nature of the infrastructure work, which seemed to view as being somewhere between traditional computing and physics. However, by now it has become almost ubiquitous, and its approaches and results are in general use.
Promise theory was introduced as a model of voluntary cooperation between agents, in 2004, for understanding human-computer systems with complex interactions, and was later developed with Dutch computer scientist and friend Jan Bergstra into a book. Interest in promise theory has grown in the IT industry, with several products citing it.
As an application of promise theory, which makes contact with knowledge representation and artificial reasoning, Burgess introduced the concept of semantic spacetime, which applies semantics to graph theoretical models of connected regions, from computer networks to smart cities.
Another recurring theme of Burgess's work has been graph theory. Working with search engine researchers Geoffrey Canright and Knut Engø Monsen, Burgess developed a page ranking algorithm similar to PageRank eigenvalue sink remedies in directed graphs. This work also met with resistance from the American journal establishment, and was delayed before final publication. With PhD Student Kyrre Begnum, he explored the related technique of Principal Component Analysis for analysing correlations in the machine-learned anomalies described above. Graphs as a model of security made another connection with physics, through the idea of percolation, or path criticality.
Since 2007, Burgess has turned his attention to the matter of knowledge representations and knowledge management, often using Promise Theory as an agency model.
Burgess is the author of a number of booksPaged ROM programming for the BBC Micro, (Dabs Press - never printed), 1985.
C, Dabs Press 1988
AmigaDOS, Dabs Press 1989
C, (Third Edition) Dabs Press 1992
C Tutorial (Fourth edition), Free Software Foundation, 2000
Principles of Network and System Administration, J. Wiley & Sons. 2000
Selected Papers in Network and System Administration, J. Wiley & Sons. 2001 (Editor, with E. Anderson and A. Couch.)
A short introduction to operating systems, not formally published (available online), 2001
Classical Covariant Fields, Cambridge University Press, 2002
Principles of Network and System Administration (Second edition), J. Wiley & Sons. 2003
Analytical Network and System Administration (Human-Computer management), J. Wiley & Sons. (2004)
Handbook of Network and System Administration, Elsevier 2007, (Editor with Jan Bergstra)
In Search of Certainty: The science of our information infrastructure, XtAxis Press, 2013
Promise Theory: Principles and Applications, XtAxis Press, 2014
Thinking in Promises, O'Reilly 2015