RealTime IT News

A World of Work at Sun Labs

MENLO PARK, Calif. -– Sun Microsystems showed off a number of cutting-edge and just plain edgy research projects at a recent open labs event here at one of its main campuses.

Sun Labs is focused mainly on near-term (one to three years) projects designed to augment Sun's current lineup, though some break out into new categories.

Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's CTO, said his company is committed to spending about 2 percent of its annual R&D budget in the labs, which staff about 170 employees.

But he did concede Sun's annual R&D budget of $2 billion is likely to see "some change" following the company's recent internal review and plans to layoff 11 percent to 13 percent, or up 5,000, of its employees.

"The labs has lots of small teams -- three people on average," said Papadopoulos.

Sun Labs at Work

The labs, which began operations in 1990 with about 100 employees, have grown their staffing slowly to 170 worldwide, with most based in California or Burlington, Mass.

Such technologies as Java, UltraSparc III and the Sun Ray thin client products have come from research at the labs.

Among the 40 technology demonstrations at the event were a number of surprising deviations from what one might typically associate with the enterprise computing firm.

One example is "Blurbalyzer," a search system that takes an Amazon type of book search to the next level.

Where Amazon recommends books based on what you've purchased versus related best sellers, Blurbalyzer makes recommendations based on reviews of similar books with the same key words.

For example, a search on "The Da Vinci Code" returned a series of recommendations that included other books by the same author, Dan Brown, and books about the Da Vinci Code by other authors.

"There's nothing wrong with what Amazon does, but we've taken a different approach," said Stephen Greene, Sun's principal investigator for advanced search technologies, told internetnews.com.

"It wouldn't be unusual for us to suggest a book that's ranked 30,000 or not even ranked on Amazon.com."

Sun has no plans to enter the music business, but its Search Inside the Music (SITM) project has the potential to make services like iTunes more useful.

While a product recommendation site tries to guess at what you might like based on past purchases, SITM makes recommendations based on the acoustics of the music you already have or subscribe too.

"A user can say 'Find me music that sounds like this music' and the system will," said Paul Lamere of Sun Labs who created the system.

In a demo, SITM was able to find punk rock and classical piano pieces similar to ones being played. You can fine-tune the system to ask for recommendations from the original musicians or to expand beyond to others in the same genre.

So why is Sun looking so far a field at music search?

"Music delivery drinks bandwidth and storage," Lamere told internetnews.com. "Content analysis uses lots of bandwidth and CPUs. This is perfect for our SunGrid system where you can rent CPUs by the hour."

Lamere said the music service would be useful to a cell phone company that wants to get into the music business.

While surfing the Web is cumbersome on a cell phone, Lamere said the music service could be customized with a simple one-button interface to select music the user likes.

Sun's Papadopoulos said the IT industry is moving inexorably towards the software as a service (SaaS) model, but most companies are still in the experimental stage -- if they've tried it at all.

"IT as we know it today is where 80 to 90 percent of the market is," said Papadopoulos.

But he thinks services like SunGrid will help grow a new model of computing-on-demand. He called SunGrid potentially a hit for Sun on the order of Apple's iPod.

"If a systems company is valuable for anything, it's an ability to morph," he said.

Sun Labs at Play

Some of the research at Sun Labs isn't necessarily intended to lead to a commercial product but rather to help Sun's worldwide operations run better.

One example is the Connected Conference Room project.

Sun's developed a "Portable Person" display prototype designed to enhance the group meeting experience for people who have to participate from a remote location.

"We're trying to give everyone a seat at the table from wherever they're located," Jonathan Kaplan, a technical staffer on the Sun project, told internetnews.com.

The Portable Person gives the remote participant the option to direct a video camera to whoever is talking in the meeting so they can see and speak to them directly.

To save on bandwidth where a high-speed connection might not be in place, an animated representation replaces the person's real image.

The cartoon mouth moves appropriately when the person is talking, but it's hard to say whether the seriousness of a business meeting would suffer with such a gimmick in place.

Another aspect, conference room attendees wear personal microphone headsets that let remote participants identify them and can even communicate with them privately, much as one might whisper a point to a colleague during a presentation.