Posted on Thu, Dec. 15, 2005

Helping new ideas hit the street

By Michael Bazeley
Mercury News

Three technology giants have banded together to provide researchers at the University of California-Berkeley with $7.5 million to help entrepreneurs make their innovations available to as wide an audience as possible.

Google, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems each will contribute $500,000 a year over the next five years to fund research at a new UC-Berkeley lab.

The Reliable, Adaptive and Distributed systems Laboratory, or RAD Lab, will be staffed with six UC-Berkeley faculty members and about a dozen computer science graduates.

The goal is to create technologies that can help Internet entrepreneurs or inventors more easily make growing services available to hundreds of thousands or millions of users, said David Patterson, UC-Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and founding director of the RAD Lab.

Patterson said great Internet ideas -- such as eBay or Amazon.com -- are often conceived by lone entrepreneurs who had to scramble to build technology that could handle increased loads when their services became popular.

``It's not trivial,'' Patterson said. ``The hard part is building something that people can use and having it scale to millions of people.''

Researchers will explore alternative methods of software engineering that may help companies scale up in size more quickly. Any technologies developed by the lab will be freely available under the Berkeley Software Distribution license.

``Innovation is critical to next-generation network technology,'' Greg Papadopoulos, Santa Clara-based Sun's executive vice president and chief of technology, said in a statement. ``At a time when most companies are divesting R&D, collaborative efforts like Berkeley's RAD Lab with innovation-focused companies like Sun, Microsoft and Google will become even more important.''

Research mecca

Google's vice president of engineering, Alan Eustace, said the Mountain View company looks forward to ``the exciting ideas and technology that will be developed there.'' The RAD lab is the latest in a string of research facilities at UC-Berkeley to open with private-sector partners.

Santa Clara chip giant Intel opened a lab in 2001 just blocks from the UC-Berkeley campus. And Sunnyvale Internet company Yahoo opened a social media lab over the summer near Berkeley. Former UC-Berkeley professor Marc Davis runs the lab, which is staffed by Yahoo employees and UC-Berkeley graduate students.

For now anyway, Google, Sun and Microsoft will be strictly hands-off when it comes to RAD Lab research, serving only as advisers and funders.

The three tech companies are contributing the bulk of the funding for the lab, along with smaller contributions from other companies. As much of 80 percent of the funding will come from private industry, with the remainder coming from government grants.

Patterson said he asked the private sector for donations because government funding for computer science research has plummeted in recent years.

Funding shifts

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been one of the key financial backers of computer science research at universities. But DARPA's university funding dropped from $214 million in 2001 to $123 million in 2004, as the agency shifted its focus to classified research that favors military contractors.

The drop in funding comes as computer science research is expanding.

``It's a real de-emphasis of university research,'' said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs for the Computing Research Association. ``It changes the landscape for federal funding. We know anecdotally that there has been a real impact on universities.''

Harsha called the RAD Lab funding an ``astonishing commitment'' by the companies to support academic research.

But researchers said private-sector financial commitments will be unusual, and are not a long-term solution to the funding woes.

``There are only two or three companies with pockets that deep,'' said Phil Bernstein, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and treasurer of the Computing Research Association. ``There just aren't that many big companies, and a lot of them don't do research. There aren't a lot of doors to knock on.''


IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

Information on the Reliable, Adaptive and Distributed systems Laboratory, or RAD Lab, may be found at: http://radlab.cs.berkeley.edu/


Contact Michael Bazeley at mbazeley@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5642, and read his blog at www.siliconbeat.com.