Networking research center aims to improve computer links, communications
Cisco, STMicroelectronics, Sony among the companies funding SNRC's endowment in exchange for access to ideas, strategies
BY GEOFF KOCH
Michael Eldredge, in charge of the Stanford Networking Research Center (SNRC), wants to solve some of the thorniest problems surrounding computer networks and communications today. To do so, he's building networks of researchers among the faculty and students at the Stanford School of Engineering and managers at a range of technology companies around the world.
The challenges addressed by SNRC can be tough to grok, even for the many technophiles at and around Stanford. One reason is that, unlike a particular piece of hardware like a laptop, or an application like a search engine, network technology is decidedly behind the scenes stuff for most computer users. Eldredge gestures around his office to explain SNRC's primary goal -- for the technology "just to be there and work and provide transparent value."
Most people take for granted how easy it is to connect just about any device that is essential for modern life to the electrical grid, he says, pointing to an AC outlet. This kind of transparency is coming to other areas, he continues. No one today thinks about the technical complexity of using a cell phone for calls and messaging, for example.
But things are very complex when it comes to connecting the increasing variety of computing and wireless communications devices. It's not always seamless to move between dial-up, broadband and wireless Internet access. And it's tricky to work across various wireless communication protocols: WiFi and Bluetooth for some wireless devices, and an alphabet soup of digital standards -- GSM, TDMA, CDMA and PDC -- for cell phones.
Stanford engineering talent combined with an oft-described culture of entrepreneurship and multidisciplinary research has produced some well-known technical and commercial successes. But it will take more than the next smart graduate student with keys to the Gates Computer Science Building to integrate the variety of data and voice networks, or wired and wireless systems, so much a part of daily life.
"These are massive, highly interconnected, systems-level problems," Eldredge says. "Solving them requires expertise in everything from smart radio architecture to network operations management."
Collaboration with industry key to success
Four years ago SNRC began seeking industry partners. The hope was that companies would sign up to fund broad, cross-disciplinary research in exchange for access to leading ideas, strategies and thinkers. Stanford would make the final decision about the research agenda, but the goal was to bring together talented teams of faculty, students and private-sector engineers to work on technologies for which there would be "market pull," Eldredge says.
Sign up they did. Industry partners, starting with Cisco, STMicroelectronics, Sony, Bosch and 3Com, built the center's $10 million endowment and today fund SNRC's multimillion-dollar annual research budget.
"Our partners are not just from networking equipment or telecommunications companies," Eldredge says, pointing to a slide with a splattering of company logos. "A surprisingly diverse set of companies are participating."
Of course, networking companies like Cisco Systems and 3Com are there. So are international telecommunication giants Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom and NTT DoCoMo. But STMicroelectronics, a chip company with components in many of the world's networking and communication devices, is also on the list. There also are consumer electronic and device companies such as Sony and Samsung. And there are even a few automotive or auto-related companies, including Bosch, Toyota and Volkswagen.
Car companies and computer networks?
"There are several distinct computer networks running through the newest cars -- for control and montoring of the engine, safety and comfort," Eldredge explains.
One vision is that, in cars of the future, travel and safety information will be maintained in real time, and the latest movies will be streamed into the vehicle or even downloaded when you stop to fill up your tank at the gas station.
Eldredge's own background perhaps is evidence of the unique nature of SNRC's mission. The resume of the Stanford-trained engineer has a uniquely Silicon Valley flavor: manager at a Stanford computer research lab, founder of a technology startup, management consultant and senior corporate executive. He may well be the only Chief Executive Director at Stanford, a title that hints at the strong links he's building with the private sector even as he continues to build SNRC's reputation.
More evidence of these links to industry will be on display at a June 8 symposium, titled "Service-Oriented Flexible Computing: Promises and Challenges of the Next Generation," sponsored by SNRC and Accel Partners. Stanford engineering faculty will be joined by industry luminaries, including Jonathan Schwartz, new president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems; Andy Bechtolsheim, inventor of the computer workstation and Sun co-founder; and Bill Coleman, one of the founders of BEA Systems.
Registration is required and more information is available at http://snrc.stanford.edu/symposium.html
Geoff Koch is a science writing intern at the News Service.