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As economy softens, Microsoft ramps up research

Jeremy Kirk | May 11, 2009
At a lab at the University of Cambridge in England, Microsoft is studying networking, energy use and home broadband

Microsoft's laboratory in Cambridge, England, has developed a software program calls Everest that allows the redirection of input and output calls from one server to another. One advantage is that it lets a disk that is receiving lots of write requests allow another disk to handle that load, either on the same server or one nearby. Also, it can save power in server racks by allowing administrators to direct input and output calls to one server and power down the rest, said said Austin Donnelly, a research software design engineer.

LONDON, 7 MAY 2009 - Even as the world economy languishes, Microsoft is putting an increasing focus on its research efforts in areas well beyond its traditional desktop and office software domain.

New research can take up 15 years before it is incorporated into a product, so Microsoft needs to be ready when the economy comes back, said Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft's research facility in Cambridge, England.

The company employs about 1,000 researchers across its five labs in the U.S., U.K., India and China and is adding around 80 people a year, nearly the same number of people as many universities' computer science departments, Herbert said. It expects to spend US$9 billion this year on research and development.

On Wednesday, Microsoft opened the doors of its U.K. facility, the Roger Needham Building at the University of Cambridge. The open house had a sort of science-fair feel to it, with researchers on hand near displays describing what they've been working on.

The commercial prospects for many of the innovations remain fuzzy, and none of the technologies will necessarily be on the market any time soon. Microsoft's researchers work quite separate from the company's product developers.

The goal is for researchers to come up with innovations that will put a smile on CEO Steve Ballmer's face, Herbert said. Ballmer is probably already smiling, as many of the lab's projects show promise.

Here are few of the most interesting:

Somniloquy: Most of Microsoft's research efforts are in software, but one of the more exotic displays from Wednesday was Somniloquy, a raw-looking USB drive sticking out of a desktop PC.

Somniloquy is the term for talking during sleep, which is essentially what it allows a PC to do. When PCs go into sleep mode, they lose the ability to communicate on networks. The only alternative is to leave the PC on, which constantly draws power.

Business users often leave their office PCs on overnight to allow remote file access, and consumers tend to leave them on for overnight BitTorrent downloads or constant VOIP presence, said James Scott, a Microsoft researcher.

Somniloquy lets a computer go to sleep yet maintain a presence on the network. It has an SD Card for memory, so it could continue to download or even share files. It can also maintain a VOIP connection, waking up the PC when a call comes in. Somniloquy can also wake up the PC if someone is trying to remotely access the machine.


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