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Projects in the Microsoft Research labs

By Gary Anthes
June 5, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - MSR has hundreds of projects under way in its six laboratories. Here are three of them:

  • Dense Array of Inexpensive Radios: DAIR is intended to help manage corporate Wi-Fi networks. It is based on two simple observations: In most companies, there are ample supplies of wired desktop computers with spare processor and disk resources, and USB-based wireless adapters are cheap and readily available. By connecting these adapters to the desktop machines, it's possible to build an inexpensive, user-transparent but effective array of "sensors" for performance monitoring and troubleshooting the corporate wireless network.

    The sensors send information about activity on the wireless net to an "inference engine" that analyzes it and issues alerts and other types of responses. An experimental DAIR network at MSR has been programmed to detect denial-of-service attacks as well as rogue connections to the wireless network, says researcher Jitendra Padhye. Future applications include site planning, load balancing and recovery from failed wireless access points, he says.

    Researcher Alec Wolman says DAIR is an improvement over approaches that rely on sensing from wireless access points, which are less numerous and less powerful than desktop machines, and dedicated equipment such as spectrum analyzers, which are very expensive.

  • Mobile Note-Taking: The idea is to use the microphone, camera and GPS sensors that are appearing in mobile telephones to capture the spontaneous information -- text, image, audio, video -- that swirls around us all the time. But it does more than record information; it also issues time- and location-dependent reminders and alerts. You might say to it, "Take notes: Remind me to call John at 7 p.m." The Windows Mobile smart phone recognizes the keywords "remind" and "7 p.m." and adds the note to its scheduler. At the appointed time, the smart phone reminds the user to call John and then dials his number when the user responds, "Call John."

    Researcher Zicheng Liu says that if the user has told the device he needs to buy bread, it can use its GPS unit to issue an alert when he's driving by a grocery store. He says a later prototype might allow it to act on prior user experience and issue the alert only when the user is near the store he habitually shops at. And the phone will be able to share notes with the user's spouse, so if she buys bread first, the reminder is automatically deleted from the user's mobile device.

  • SureMail: Imagine booting up your PC one morning and hearing, "You've lost mail!" In a controlled two-month experiment using a variety of e-mail systems at 42 companies and universities, Microsoft found that one in 140 e-mail messages disappeared without a trace. These "silent losses" have a variety of causes, including disk crashes, poorly executed server upgrades, overly aggressive spam filters and just plain overload.

    With SureMail, when a message is sent, a small, tamperproof notification is posted to a table somewhere on the Internet. These notifications can be kept on a dedicated server or can be distributed among cooperating clients on a peer-to-peer basis. E-mail recipients periodically query the table and match notifications with messages received. If they find notifications for which there is no message, they know the message has been lost.

    Researcher Sharad Agarwal says the scheme has no impact on existing e-mail systems, maintains key e-mail properties such as privacy and spam defenses, and places no demands on users unless they are notified of a loss.

    A single company adopting SureMail wouldn't get much benefit from it, says senior researcher Venkata Padmanabhan, "but it could be used by ad hoc groups of clients forming a peer-to-peer cloud." In any case, he says, SureMail is a "very early prototype."

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