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The second phase of Microsoft's layoffs is all about focus

Mary Branscombe | Sept. 24, 2014
As details of the second round of Microsoft layoffs have trickled out, the only obvious pattern has been cutting back on what's not core to the platforms and productivity focus that CEO Satya Nadella has been emphasizing (or the explicitly protected Xbox side of the house), plus further tidying up of which teams sit where.

As details of the second round of Microsoft layoffs have trickled out, the only obvious pattern has been cutting back on what's not core to the platforms and productivity focus that CEO Satya Nadella has been emphasizing (or the explicitly protected Xbox side of the house), plus further tidying up of which teams sit where.

Microsoft Research Silicon Valley

The announcement that the Microsoft Research lab in Silicon Valley was closing is sad more because it ends a piece of Silicon Valley history — and because talented researchers suddenly have to find new positions — than because of large areas of key research being lost.

Back in 1984, DEC founded its Systems Research Center in Palo Alto when Robert Taylor left Xerox PARC; in 1996 current MSR Silicon Valley head Roy Levin took over. When Compaq bought December in 1988, the lab changed its name and kept working. But when HP bought Compaq in 2002, although the Systems Research Center merged into HP Labs, Levin took his team of distributed systems researchers and co-founded the MSR lab to give them a home. That included the trio of Turing Award winners Butler Lampson, Chuck Thacker, and Leslie Lamport.

Those are names to conjure with in the history of computing, and their work at MSR has continued to be important for Microsoft. Thacker worked on both the first computer with a mouse (the Xerox Alto) and the Tablet PC team that introduced mainstream pen computing. But some of them have already moved on to other MSR labs (Lampson is based in Cambridge, MA) and they're perhaps more to be thought of as the elder statesmen of research.

The lab was already down to 50 people from a peak of 80 researchers in 2001 and the other programs based on the Silicon Valley campus — including the StorSimple team, BizSpark incubation, the corporate citizenship program, and outreach to the local technology community by providing free facilities for meetings and events — remain.

That presence in Silicon Valley had been an advantage for the lab, in terms of tapping university talent from Stanford and Berkeley, and getting researchers who simply wouldn't leave the area. But although the research teams working on concurrency and distributed systems produced interesting tools and techniques, and the list of products incorporating research from MSR Silicon Valley rages from spam-fighting tools for Hotmail to Kinect body tracking to the ASLR security protection that provides key malware protection in Windows, those are all older projects.

Some key projects never turned into commercial success. Dryad, Microsoft's system for graph-based distributed database programming, didn't get the usage Hadoop did and industry focus has moved from server clusters and parallel computing to cloud services. (Dryad and Dryad LINQ are both open source projects now.) The Singularity research OS team came up with some excellent techniques for creating more reliable systems, but that research finished some years ago.

 

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