23 Apr Microsoft's Madison computer lab could treat technology ills
Madison, Wis. – Microsoft’s Bill Gates must have been very impressed with Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a 2005 visit here.
In the interim, not only has the Seattle-based software giant acquired a local company, Jellyfish.com, it now plans to open an advanced computer lab in downtown Madison to take advantage of the database expertise at UW-Madison.
For Microsoft, which has worked with the UW computer sciences department for several years, the Jim Gray Systems Lab will be an opportunity to innovate in the area database technology, an area where Microsoft has fallen behind competitive rivals.
For the university and the state, the lab is an affirmation of its technological prowess, and is expected to bring some important educational and commercial benefits.
University officials believe it might accelerate the slight upward trend in computer science enrollment, and state officials hope it helps the state retain coveted IT talent, further build its information technology sector by encouraging technology transfer, and complement other computing efforts like the recently established Milwaukee Institute.
Roberta Gassman, secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development, said the lab would complement Gov. Jim Doyle’s efforts to promote research and innovation, which also include recently announced state tax credits.
“I think this is a major coup for the Madison area, and it’s also going to be very good for the University of Wisconsin because this is going to increase opportunities for their students, and it should be very powerful in terms of recruiting top graduate students and top faculty as well,” Gassman said.
“The Governor really believes that what makes Wisconsin special is, to a very large degree, the extraordinary research capacity that we have in this state. Certainly, the University of Wisconsin is a key part of that.”
Gates, who visited UW-Madison during his 2005 College Tour, has been trying to encourage young people to pursue technology careers. In addition to the lab, which will open this summer, Microsoft has pledged to support five graduate research assistantships in the UW-Madison computer science department. The company also may establish internships for UW students and consulting opportunities for faculty.
The lab is named for Jim Gray, a Microsoft programmer who has not been seen since a January 2007 yachting trip. It will be run by David DeWitt, a retired professor in UW-Madison’s computer science department. DeWitt, who first pitched the idea for the lab to Gates late in 2007, was instrumental in developing the database systems that now are prevalent in the private sector.
Microsoft considers DeWitt, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, to be one of the top minds in database systems. “Attracting someone of David’s caliber is a coup for Microsoft,” said Peter Spiro, a former student of DeWitt’s and now a Microsoft technical fellow, in a statement released by the company.
Microsoft is expected to have six full-time employees at the lab, which will be located on Main Street in downtown Madison. DeWitt said he would wait to fill out his staff before deciding what research projects to work on.
DeWitt, who described the tools companies now use to analyze data as “primitive,” said there is no shortage of database challenges to work on. One possibility is the use of flash discs instead of traditional disc drives in the data center environment, a transition that would be more costly upfront but could result in much less power consumption – by a factor of 100 for the discs – over time.
Other areas of exploration could be how changes in architecture impact database systems, and the prospects for upgrading the efficiency and analytical capabilities of electronic medical records, he said.
“There are a lot of domains that aren’t well served by database systems,” DeWitt stated.
Guri Sohi, chairman of the UW-Madison computer sciences department, expects the lab to grow over time. He sees multiple benefits to having the lab, including faculty recruitment and retention, higher student enrollment, and the spin-off of technology companies from the university. He expects the lab to foster collaboration not only between students and faculty, but between the university and the private sector.
“It’s a two-way street,” Sohi said.
With the explosion of data in fields like science and healthcare, Sohi said database management and analysis will become increasingly important. “This data needs to be managed in a variety of environments,” he noted. “To analyze it, you have to have managed it properly to begin with.”
Getting their attention
Other than product sales, Microsoft first established commercial ties to Madison last October, when it bought Jellyfish.com, a web-based comparison shopping engine, for $50 million. Microsoft, which has kept the company and its 25 jobs here, is trying to erode Google’s dominance of online advertising.
Microsoft’s interest in Wisconsin is the latest example of the state’s ability to attract global technology players. Examples also include GE Healthcare, which has operated a facility in Waukesha and invested in companies such as Datex-Ohmeda; CDW Corp., which acquired Madison’s Berbee Information Networks; and Roche Pharmaceuticals, which last year purchased the Madison-based NimbleGen for $272 million.
The state’s technology sector, particularly high-performance computing, also is expected to get a shot in the arm from the Milwaukee Institute. The institute was established last fall to develop a cyber infrastructure to support collaborative research in southeastern Wisconsin.
Gassman said Microsoft’s Madison lab would help the state train new IT workers at a time when projections say the rate of job growth in computer positions will exceed the overall rate of job growth by a factor of 2.5.
“Many different kinds of employers need workers with these skills,” she said, “and the skills are transferable to different kinds of settings.”
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