HP shakes up research labs, places 'big bets'

BRISTOL, England -- Hewlett-Packard Co. is forging ahead with a revamp of its research labs that it hopes will put cutting-edge developments into its products much faster.

The shake-up, publicly announced in March, comes after an analysis that found its 23 research labs were spread too thin, tackling some 150 projects simultaneously. Now, the labs will only take on 20 to 30 "big bets," technologies that HP believes will meet the next wave of business IT demands, said Prith Banerjee, director of HP Labs.

HP threw open the doors to its lab here on Thursday. It's home to 100 researchers working on projects such as plastic replacements for the glass in flat-panel displays and the semantic Web, a way of labeling information that enables better searching on the Internet.

HP is one of the few companies that still funds extensive research, said Banerjee, who quit as dean of the college of engineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago to take the HP job last August. The old way the lab was organized "made sense for its time" but didn't enable research to be incorporated quickly into products, he said.

Martin Sadler, director of the systems security lab and an 18-year labs veteran, said "we kind of drifted a little bit."

Before the reorganization, as few as two people could propose and approve a research project, Banerjee said. That's changed. Now researchers draw up 25-page proposals that are floated before an internal review board composed of technologists, lab directors and a new group -- marketing and product development experts.

It marks a closer link with the business side, one that Banerjee said is similar to how venture capital funds decide what technologies to invest in. "Our gut tells us it's the right approach," he said. "You have to be sure you don't make the wrong bets."

The new strategy for HP's labs hasn't resulted in higher turnover in an environment where competitors such as Microsoft Corp., Google Inc. and IBM vie for talented researchers and engineers. "If people are grumpy, it's over the little things, nothing substantive," Sadler said.

The selected projects are centered around five themes: how to manage an ever-increasing amount of data; Web-based services; digitizing analog content; developing "intelligent" infrastructure that requires less human management; and sustainability, which looks at the environmental impact of IT.

HP's labs get about $150 million of the company's $3.6 billion research and development budget.

Lab directors won't reveal exactly what projects they're working on. But they will describe the IT landscape that has made those areas a priority.

HP's newest lab, in St. Petersburg, Russia, is focused on managing information, which can encompass data mining, how to label information properly and even how it should be presented to the end user. The lab was placed in St. Petersburg because of the strong mathematics research programs in the city's universities, said its director, Vladimir Polutin, who was in Bristol this week.

Most stored information is unstructured data that's not easily searchable, he said. His lab is looking at how data models, or ontologies, can be created to connect disparate but related information on servers. Another focus is developing technology that can create timelines out of data, which could be of particular importance for products related to compliance issues.

"Who knew what when," is not an easy issue for current information management systems, Polutin said.

On the sustainability theme, HP is building a tool kit and composing methodologies that enterprises can use to calculate the carbon footprint of complex chains of technology, said Chandrakant Patel, director of the sustainable IT ecosystem lab. For example, it would help a telecom vendor calculate emissions based on different choices of infrastructure, such as switches.

"Hopefully, we will be forced to pick the product with the lowest carbon footprint," Banerjee said.

The "intelligent infrastructure" work is the domain of Sadler's lab. Among the topics researchers are working on are how to make an infrastructure easier to install and configure with fewer people. Many IT components, such as firewalls, databases and middleware, each require a specialist to set up. Without that requirement, IT costs could be driven down, Sadler said.

HP has also started an initiative to do more with research that doesn't make it into products. The Technology Transfer Office looks at product development and licenses intellectual property to third parties. The office will also reach out to venture capital groups.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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