Symantec beats the research drum

The company is making research a higher priority. It is investing more resources in the group and is more aggressive about the development of technology in-house.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Michael Spertus is about to get some colleagues.

Right now, Spertus is the only employee at Symantec doing fundamental research, which means he is looking at the limits of security technology without a specific product or business goal in mind. This is a new part of Symantec Research Labs, which the Cupertino, Calif., software maker aims to expand.

Last week, for the first time, the company showed off its Symantec Research Labs to press and analysts, at two events.

"We have a critical mass now for the organization," said Mark Bregman, Symantec's chief technology officer. "This is a little bit of a coming out event."

Symantec research labs

Symantec Research Labs is much smaller than the research arms of Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Sun Microsystems, for instance. But after the merger with storage software maker Veritas Software, Symantec feels its research group has come of age and is worth showing off to the outside world.

Both Symantec and Veritas had research activities prior to their merger earlier this year, but the combined company is making research a higher priority. It is investing more resources in the group and is more aggressive about the development of technology in-house, rather through acquisitions, company executives said.

"This is really the only team inside the company whose scope of focus essentially doubled with the acquisition," said Stephen Trilling, the vice president in charge of all research activities as Symantec.

Down to basics
Symantec Research Labs has about 50 people who work in Mountain View and Santa Monica, Calif., and in Pune, India. Spertus is the only one doing fundamental research, while the others work on projects more closely related to Symantec's business.

Symantec spends about 15 percent of its annual revenue--estimated to hit $5 billion on non-GAAP basis for the current fiscal year ending in March--on research and development. The company spends less than 1 percent on its Symantec Research Labs. The balance of the money goes to product groups for their research and development.

"My goal is to grow Symantec Research Labs pretty aggressively," Bregman said. "We will grow the research budget faster than revenue growth." In the next year or so, Bregman said, he hopes to add about 10 people to the organization, including top-notch investigators who do the type of fundamental research Spertus does, he said.

The group helps Symantec improve its technologies, but also helps the company retain and attract talent and expand its patent portfolio, Bregman said. Symantec has about 200 patents today, and about 1,000 are pending, the company said. This week, it will host a patent award dinner with CEO John Thompson to reward its inventors.

While patents are a payoff for researchers, the inclusion of technology in products is the biggest prize, Trilling said. Symantec Research Labs has had many successful "tech transfers," he said.

"Tech transfer, in some sense, is the ultimate measure of our success--the Holy Grail of what we do as far as our contribution to the company," Trilling said.

Hits from the lab
The labs' successes include the network connection manager that now ships as part of NetBackup. When it comes to security, the researchers made improvements in antivirus detection and built technology that blocks threats by creating a signature of a software security flaw, rather than of the malicious code that exploits it, Trilling said. Security products check these signatures against a list to recognize incoming threats.

Last week, Symantec demonstrated three projects its researchers are working on now: a database audit and security appliance; new software to create a virtual single data store; and a fault tolerance system that comes to the rescue in a case of application failure.

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