Tech giants chart research goals

EmTech Conference: IT giants discuss R&D projects for efficiency, parallelism, and mobile communications

Power consumption, parallelism, and the rapidly-expanding world of mobile communications are among the leading areas of research and development investigated by some of the IT world's largest companies.

Taking the stage at MIT's EmTech Conference (formerly the MIT Emerging Technology Conference) were top researchers from Cisco, HP, and Intel who unveiled some of their leading areas of study and experimentation.

From the growing impact of mobile computing devices to the push to make IT eco-friendly, along with new efforts to take advantage of parallel data processing capabilities, researchers from the three technology bellwethers spoke of common threads woven through their work and in what directions they believe the results of those efforts will subsequently drive future technologies.

Following a panel discussion on social networking tools that also focused heavily on the impact of mobile devices, Andrew Chien, vice president of research at Intel, said that the chip giant is also focusing heavily on the changes in IT usage and consumption that are being driven by handheld machines.

Chien said Intel feels that wireless device, applications and service providers were still falling short in terms of how "intuitive" and "seamless" they were.

"We have a healthy amount of concern about the amount of effort that these technologies require," said Chien. "To that end, we're very excited about the idea of inference in the context of small mobile devices, about the richer senses and analysis of data that can be realized based on the body of techniques lumped under the umbrella of machine learning."

Among the specific examples of the types of mobile applications that Intel envisions taking root in the near future are systems that offer "seamless presentation" of more useful information than those available in today's handhelds, including tools that use geolocation and onboard sensors to give users data that is pertinent to their personal condition and immediate surroundings.

Both Cisco and HP also count mobility among their leading areas of research, the panelists said, with Cisco looking into ways to merge "telepresence" with its recently acquired WebEx collaboration tools, and HP working on ways to more tightly link handhelds with back-end datacenter systems.

Prith Banerjee, only six weeks into his new post of senior vice president of research at HP's Labs division, said that the company's work in mobility, green IT and parallelism are converging in its larger efforts to make large data centres more efficient in general.

In some cases, the work is oriented toward improving performance, such as through the use of photonic interconnects -- advanced electromagnetic technologies -- to allow datacenters to communicate more quickly.

In other cases, HP Labs is looking at datacenter power consumption, using sensors built into its prototype servers to reduce costs and headaches associated with cooling the massive hardware farms.

The challenges of parallel computing

As for parallel computing -- roughly defined as the simultaneous execution of numerous program instructions on multiple or multi-core processors -- Banerjee said that HP is hoping to use its research efforts to help clear some of the software programming obstacles that exist on the market today.

"We're very aware in our research of the challenges of making parallel software applications; we need engineers who can start writing code designed for multi-cores and to help transition software designed to run on a single processor," said Prith.

If some of those roadblocks can be pushed aside, the benefits could be enormous, according to the HP researcher.

"We're imaging a world where you plug in a computer and all the applications work automatically, and users don't have to worry about patches and updates," he said. "We're imagining a world where software is automatically updated and maintained so that environment for end-users will be completely automated and allow them to increase productivity. That is a very difficult problem to solve, but we're going to try to solve it."

Another area of focus for all three organizations is the process of refining their internal research and development operations. Under Prith, HP will attempt to lower its overall number of research projects by folding them into larger efforts, the executive said, and Chien added that Intel is having success with "lablets," groups of researchers it sponsors at academic institutions to augment its internal R&D work.

At Cisco, the massive networking company is attempting to inject an air of entrepreneurialism into areas of research that it believes can be turned into revenue-producing businesses rapidly, as evidenced by the launch of its physical security and telepresence product groups over the last several years, said Guido Jouret, CTO of the firm's Emerging Markets Technology Group.

"We're trying to re-create the start-up atmosphere inside Cisco. So far, we've announced four different units, and the goal is to create one every several months," Jouret said. "We'll also continue to do small acquisitions where we can gain vital technologies or teams to help flesh out our ideas. The idea is to create an interesting mix of entrepreneurial drive."

Along with security and telepresence, the company has launched a digital media group as part of the effort as well as a business devoted to replacing the static product displays found in retails stores today with "digitally-driven network displays."

Jouret said that the telepresence group is working to mesh device geolocation with collaboration tools and multimedia-sharing systems.

"We want to combine video with collaboration platforms for rich multimedia interaction, tools that allow companies and consumers to interact in ways that we can't even imagine yet," he said.

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