Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Visit to Utah

I had a great visit to the University of Utah this week, and gave a distinguished lecture on "A New Era of Resource Responsibility for Sensor Networks." I had never visited Utah before, and am pretty impressed with their CS department overall. The folks there seem to get along very well and have considerable strength in graphics, languages, and embedded systems in particular. Their Scientific Computing Institute could be a model for what we've been doing at Harvard with the Initiative in Innovative Computing.

Of course, Utah is famous for the Flux research group, led by the late and great Jay Lepreau. Jay was one of my role models and I admired his approach to building real systems and getting others to use them (our MoteLab testbed was heavily inspired by Emulab.) I'm sorry that I never got a chance to visit Utah while Jay was still with us.

One thing that struck me was that the group is built around full-time research staff, which has enabled them to build substantial research infrastructure (such as Emulab) and continue to expand and maintain it beyond the typical timeframe of a graduate student. (It's also true that research staff tend to think less in terms of papers+thesis and more in terms of writing useful code. It's sad that these things are not always compatible in the course of academic research.) It's not a model I've seen used much in other systems groups -- likely because it requires a lot of funding to make it sustainable. Then again, Jay was a powerhouse when it came to bringing in research funds.

It's great to see that the Flux group is still going strong. I'm sure Jay would be really glad to see it.

(By the way, HotOS just won't feel the same without Jay there. We need to appoint an honorary Lepreau Proxy. Any volunteers to ask snarky, meandering questions after each talk?)


  1. Why couldn't other departments have a higher staff/postdoc : grad student ratio? When you write an NSF/DARPA/whatever grant, do they really care if your staff budget is going to grad students rather than staff and postdocs? Or is it that grad students cost less per person than staff/postdocs?

  2. In general:

    a) grad students are cheaper than staff (sometimes 0.5x)
    b) NSF prefers to fund grad students
    c) Staff always need 12mo support, grad students frequently go on internships, get fellowships, and, if somehow funding suddenly drys up can usually TA (plus time to Ph.D. is ~5-6 years while staff can stay for a decade or more)
    d) Consequently, many people only want to hire staff when they feel confident about being able to provide significant job security... a-c mean that you need to feel flush to do this.

    All that said, I think people are probably overly conservative here since my experience is that good experienced staff are worth their weight in gold.