Blogging from rsrg@caltech

I’ve resisted the urge to start a blog for many years, but now (with tenure in hand) I’ve broken down.  My goal with the blog is to shed some light on the challenges for an academic that is drawn to both theory and applications, hence the name “rigor + relevance.”

That combination is not something that is sought after by the “typical” computer systems person, but it is really the defining goal of the Rigorous Systems Research Group (RSRG, pronounced “resurge”) at Caltech.  Our style is really different from what you see in most systems groups.  We pick what we think is an important problem, one where intuitive approaches are hitting a dead-end and we feel a big breakthrough may be possible.  Then, we start from theory, hoping to build mathematical tools and foundations that help with system design.  When these lead somewhere, prototyping and hopefully tech transfer to industry follow…  A great example of this approach is Steven Low’s FastSoft company, which was recently acquired by Akamai.    This was a project that started with theorems, then went to a prototype (which held the world record for bandwidth for a number of years) before finally being commercialized.

Sitting at the boundary of theory and practice is a tough place to be, though.  It’s easy to do work that falls through the cracks, since the theory side doesn’t see the value from the practical applications, and the application side doesn’t see the value gained from the analysis.  As the joke goes — from space, you can see two things clearly: the great wall, and the gap between theory and practice.

Of course, when the approach works, it can have big impact since the really groundbreaking ideas often come from understanding gained through modeling and analysis: pagerank, tcp, p2p, ad auctions, and many others …

These days, RSRG is focusing on a few main applications:  sustainable data centers, cloud computing markets, the smart grid, and privacy.  So, in the near future, many of the posts will likely be related to these topics.  But, of course, there’ll also be posts about various other parts of academia — teaching, conferences, etc.

While I’ll probably be doing most of the writing, there’ll hopefully be lots of guest posts from all the faculty in RSRG, as well as the students and postdocs in the group.