A peek inside Sun Labs research

We got a glimpse into the wide-ranging work going on at Sun Microsystems Laboratories in Burlington, Mass., last week,which includes everything from core systems science to developments in online gaming and collaboration.

Vice President and Sun Fellow Robert Sproull says the labs employs 150 and gets 2 percent of Sun's roughly US$2 billion in R&D money per year. Of all the projects underway, 60 percent to 70 percent are software-development efforts, he estimates.

The labs primarily focuses on technologies that will aid Sun's business units, but some research takes the company in new directions, such as gaming.

Karl Haberl is the research director on Project Darkstar, which he describes as a software platform for the development of massively multiplayer online games (MMOG).

While MMOGs are hugely popular -- World of Warcraft has 7 million subscribers -- the complexity of the back-end systems limits which vendors can enter the market and imposes limitations on what players can do in the virtual world.

Haberl says games today are sharded, meaning particular servers handle different parts of the world and can support only so many players. Besides being an imposition on players, a server failure is a business liability.

Sun is working on a shardless approach -- players can wander where they will -- that has low latency, is scalable and fault tolerant, and supports load balancing. Just as important, this approach provides a layer of abstraction to hide the complexity of programming to a multithreaded environment that supports transaction and data integrity and persistence. The programmer doesn't have to worry about explicitly locking and unlocking objects. That may lower the bar and encourage more companies to enter the gaming market, Haberl says.

In terms of commercializing the technology, it could be sold to a game-hosting company or used by Sun to enter that market. The labs doesn't cross that path until the work is more fully baked.

Another technology the company demonstrated was an audioconferencing tool built in Java that has some interesting features. For example, users can start a private voice-chat session with any conference attendee and still hear the conference session in the background, and adjust the audio level for any individual participant. Users also can migrate the conference call to a cell phone if they have to hit the road. All sensible advances.

Principal investigator Nicole Yankelovich says she hopes some pieces of the project end up in production, but she won't venture a guess as to where and how. That's life as a research scientist.

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