Most engineers in technology companies focus on expanding or enhancing specific product lines—and tackling projects with specific business returns. If risk is high and failure considered too costly, a project is unlikely to get off the ground.
But with the acquisition of Sun, Oracle gained a technical research group with more than two decades of experience creating innovations outside the scope of typical product development. In that time, the innovations developed by Sun Labs researchers have had a huge impact on the company, the industry, and individuals worldwide.
“Our mission is to identify, explore, create, and then leverage new technology,” says Roger Meike, Sun Labs director of operations. “We focus on finding the right problems to pursue and then finding the right answers—even if the answer ends up being ‘no.’”
One of the most famous innovations created in Sun Labs grew from an effort to program set-top boxes for interactive television. An aspect of that project was to create an object-oriented language—later known as Java. After it was released in 1995, Java’s versatility, platform portability, and security proved extremely valuable as the era of the internet began. Today, there are more instances of Java than there are people on the planet.
But when it was created, Java seemed unrelated to Sun’s core hardware business. “We always ride the balance between being relevant to the company’s current strategy and working on ideas that initially may seem silly but might be of benefit,” Meike explains. “Our researchers don’t always know where projects will lead, but they have the freedom to make changes and follow interesting ideas as they arise.”
Currently, Sun Labs researchers are tackling challenges with potentially far-ranging benefits for Oracle’s business and its customers—creating a platform that simplifies development for small wireless devices, developing self-optimizing computer systems, and advancing parallel computing capabilities.
“What’s exciting today is that almost anything in computer science or electrical engineering has relevance in Oracle. We’re in the best position to do research focusing on database technology, as well as the entire hardware/software stack and how the whole system fits together,” Meike says.
Sun Labs researchers evaluate potential projects with an eye toward how the innovations might be applied to Oracle’s business. There is no set process for starting new projects because the group does not want to squelch potential innovation.
Once an idea becomes commercialized, Sun Labs researchers can extend their involvement by transferring into a product team to help bring the idea to fruition. “A technology created by Sun Labs may apply to 100 different products,” Meike says. “Our goal is to reduce risk as quickly and thoroughly as possible to make our technology attractive to the business units, because there is a lot of execution that has to happen between development of a technology and launch of a product.”
With Oracle’s acquisition, Sun Labs has entered a growth phase. In addition to adding researchers, it will continue to foster relationships with university researchers, recruit students for its coveted internships, and play an active role in standards organizations.
“The biggest change to Sun Labs since joining Oracle is that we have a different business to provide for, with a strong database emphasis that Sun didn’t have,” Meike says. “Because data management presents huge and growing challenges for businesses everywhere, that’s a tremendous opportunity.”