An Educated View of Innovation – VMware’s Academic Program

VMware has a unique offering to the academic community called the VMware Academic Program or VMAP.  We started the program in 2005 in response to a growing interest from academics to do virtualization research and instruction.   VMware’s roots in academia (we started at Stanford University) compelled us to do much more than sponsored research and education via licenses and courseware.  We now have a robust global program that spans many facets of academia.   Through this program, we continue to foster innovation in virtualization as well as broader systems areas.

I recently sat down with Steve Muir, VMware’s Director of VMAP, to hear more about the program and would like to share our conversation with the community.

Julia: Now that you’ve been at VMware for just about a year, can you tell me how you would describe the VMware Academic Program to the community?

Steve: VMAP is an initiative of the Innovation team within the Office of the CTO.  We foster VMware’s relationships with the academic community.  While the goals and programs of VMAP are primarily research oriented, we also have various efforts to support teaching and education.

Julia: Are there specific focus areas of VMAP?

Steve: There are three primary elements in the program: research collaboration, community engagement and technology initiatives.  In research collaboration we support a number of universities’ research activities, either joint research projects or broad sponsorship of a particular department or research lab.  Our community engagement efforts provide sponsorship for a wide range of academic conferences every year, and we work closely with our colleagues in University Relations to reach out to student groups at various universities.  Technology initiatives are focused on making VMware technology and related educational content available to academic users.

Julia: A lot of tech companies simply write checks to sponsor research. How is VMAP going beyond that when it comes to supporting research activities?

Steve: Our mission is to establish strong, working relationships with academic researchers – well beyond just writing checks.  We have a number of universities engaged in collaborative research projects with our core engineering team.  The close proximity of several of our R&D labs to some of the top research universities in the world has allowed for a very fluid interaction with these teams.

We target specific areas of interest (such as security, networking, etc.), and provide the opportunity for researchers to partner with teams who are actually shipping code.  Our projects are solicited through an annual Request for Proposals or initiated by our R&D colleagues based upon their existing relationships. Ultimately, our collaborative work results in joint publications and quite often influences VMware product and feature offerings, e.g., this paper on Hierarchical QoS just published at USENIX.

Julia: I’m sure you get regular feedback from our academic partners about what they get out of the program.  What types of benefits do they cite from their collaboration with VMware?

Steve: Our academic partners truly appreciate the insight they get into real customer challenges, and at scale far beyond the systems that researchers typically have access to. We help guide research towards the most relevant challenges, and consequently maximise the impact of that research.  We obviously also have an exceptionally talented and experienced workforce that can provide knowledge and perspective on a wide range of systems research areas, but perhaps most important are the relationships built between researchers, students and VMware engineers, often leading to joint publications or a starting point for a PhD thesis.

Julia: Who are some of the collaborators you’re working with these days?

Steve: We have ongoing relationships with numerous universities, not just in the US but internationally.  Through our 2011 RFP, on ‘Performance in Cloud and Virtualized Environments’ we funded projects at the University of Boston, University of Tennesee and University of Toronto, and have already seen those projects bear fruit.  We will shortly announce the recipients of our 2012 RFP, for cloud and virtualized system security, for which we had a great level of interest.  Some of our other research partnerships, driven by existing relationships, are with MIT, CMU, Berkeley, Ohio State University, Georgia Tech, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Imperial College, London.

Julia: Part of being in the academic community is attending and participating in conferences.  Are there specific conferences VMware sponsors, and what role do we play at those events?

Steve: Just as VMware’s corporate interests are broader than just virtualization and our global presence has expanded to various countries, VMAP’s conference sponsorship and participation evolves and looks to new areas.  For example, with our current focus on Big Data and other database topics we attended the recent ACM SIGMOD conference for the first time and made some great connections with researchers in this area.

Internationally we supported the ACM PLDI conference in Beijing, where VMware Fellow Ole Agesen was the keynote speaker, and Eurosys in Switzerland, as part of our global outreach. We also co-sponsored conferences outside the academic sphere to engage with different communities – for example, this year we partnered with our Ecosystem Engineering organization to co-sponsor EclipseCon.  Our conference enables more students to attend by providing travel grants, and many researchers enjoy talking to VMware engineers about how their research relates to our business and technical challenges.

One great thing that we hear about our participation at conferences is that we aren’t there just to recruit.  We often have our own papers to present, lead Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions, and our engineers really enjoy the chance to engage with the research community.   This level of participation has been a great way to demonstrate our support for the academic community, and highlight our work in solving hard problems through innovation.  It also provides great professional and personal development opportunities for our engineers, and helps us develop relationships with professors and students.

Julia: I always get excited when I hear one of our engineers just had a paper accepted to a conference.  What have been the most successful conferences for VMware this year?

Steve: We’re extremely proud of the folks that work so hard to reach these achievements.    In March we sponsored VEE and ASPLOS, held at the Royal Society in London, and had several papers presented in the conferences and associated workshop.  Just last month we sponsored the USENIX Annual Technical Conference, in Boston, where we presented two papers on storage QoS, based on joint work with faculty and students at Rice University, and one on hypervisor performance optimisation.

Looking ahead a little, one of the most interesting conferences for us every year is the USENIX Large Installation System Administration conference (LISA).  It is unique in bringing together researchers and practicing system administrators, which are both communities that are very interested in what VMware is doing.  LISA has a different feel than a traditional academic conference, and it’s always a great way to wrap up the conference season; we had a very well attended BoF last year, and hopefully will have a paper or two this year.

Julia: Who at VMware can participate in VMAP?

Steve: The VMAP team runs the program, but our success is heavily dependent on the participation of our VMware colleagues in R&D.  Publishing papers, representing VMware at conferences and engaging with students are all things that any VMware engineer can do, and they do it very well.  We encourage everyone at VMware to take advantage of the opportunities we can provide them to get out and interact with the academic community.

Julia: It’s great to see the progress being made with VMAP. How can the community get more information about the program?

Steve: There has been a lot of progress made, but there’s also much more we plan to do in the future.  The VMware Academic Program hosts a lot of information about different programs here. Our software licensing program for academic users is described in detail here. You can also follow us on Twitter at  @vmwacademic.