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Arch rivals Google and Microsoft have combined with Sun to fund an academic research lab which aims to pioneer the development of new approaches to software development. The three companies will provide $7.5m over five years to fund research at the Reliable, Adaptive and Distributed systems laboratory, or the RAD Lab, at the University of California, Berkeley.

RAD Lab researchers (initially made up of six UC Berkeley professors with 10 computer science graduate students) will focus on developing alternatives to traditional software engineering. In traditional systems, work is completed in sequential stages starting from system concept to development, assessment or testing, deployment and operation.

Critics say this approach is often too slow. Instead of infrequent, well-tested upgrades, code for internet services is continually being modified on the fly. This fix-it-as-you-go approach enables speedier deployment, but it also requires a large technical support staff to make sure operations are not disrupted as bugs are resolved.

"Right now, it takes a large company employing hundreds of really smart people to support Internet services," said David Patterson, UC Berkeley professor and founding director of the RAD Lab. "Our goal with this center is to develop technology that eliminates the need for such a large organization, opening up innovation opportunities for small groups or even individual entrepreneurs. We can help do this by applying statistical machine learning - the same technology used successfully in the recent autonomous vehicle grand challenge - to the development of computer systems."

Google, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems will each donate an average of $500,000 per year to the lab. Along with other smaller contributions, the lab is expected to pull in as much as 80 per cent of its support from industry. Government grants will make up the rest of its funding.

Any software and applications emerging from the RAD Lab will be made freely and openly available to the public, with source code distributed using the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license. "We are following in the grand tradition of Berkeley engineering, as with Berkeley's BSD Unix operating system, in making our innovations freely available and unencumbered for research and possible commercialisation in source code form," said Randy Katz, a RAD Lab co-founder. ®

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