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Sun Labs pushes forward despite layoffs

Company's taking a fresh look at almost everything it does, but its research and innovation efforts won't change, execs say.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--Despite Sun Microsystems' recent troubles, the company says it is committed to cooking up new technologies in its labs and pushing the envelope of computing performance.

The server and software company opened its doors on Friday to show off dozens of projects in development by researchers here. It focuses on applied research, or the exploration of technologies and concepts that it thinks it can develop into products in a relatively short period of time, said Bob Sproull, director of Sun Labs.

"We want to stay small and be the 'eyes and ears' of the company," Sproull said. Sun Labs is the work place of about 170 people, most of whom are based in California, and has grown fairly slowly by design since the group was founded in 1990, he said.

Sun devotes about 2 percent of its overall research and development budget to Sun Labs, said Greg Papadopoulos, the company's chief technology officer. That allocation is unlikely to change in the wake of layoffs and a restructuring program announced earlier this week. But the overall amount of money Sun sets aside for research and development is likely to change, he said. Sun's research and development budget during its 2005 fiscal year was $1.8 billion, down from $1.9 billion in the previous fiscal year.

Still, the work in Sun Labs goes on. The company is eagerly awaiting the results of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's decision on vendors for the HPCS (high-productivity computing system), said David Douglas, associate director for the HPCS project at Sun. DARPA is deciding between proposals from three companies--Sun, IBM and Cray--on a next-generation computing architecture that, by 2009 or 2010, would provide national security applications with 10 to 40 times the performance of today's systems, he said.

In order to hit that level of performance, Sun is betting on a multithreading architecture powered by its T1 and forthcoming Rock processors, Douglas said. DARPA is expected to choose two of the three companies to move forward with the third phase of the project in July, he said.

Sun is also working on technologies for less serious applications. Researchers showed off a concept for a media browser, a search application that would let home users find movie titles, for example, based on factors that they control. "We want to avoid list-based interfaces. Lists do not scale," said Scott Nazarian, a company researcher. The basic idea is to let couch potatoes surf across a grid of movies sorted by genre and labeled with visual cues, and then let people select a particular movie based on how it matches up with preset criteria.

The company is also working on a combination social-networking/video-conferencing application that would let colleagues interact over high-resolution video screens like they were meeting in the hallway, said Joan DiMicco, a Sun researcher. The project is still being fleshed out, but two people on opposite ends of a video-conferencing application could access a social-networking map that plays "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" with fellow employees. For example, the application showed how Sun researchers were connected to each other by where they sit, what projects they've worked on, or patents they have filed.