Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science has partnered with Mozilla Firefox’s Auckland office to carry out research projects, including some which will help improve the performance of the world’s second-most popular browser.
The collaboration was forged by Dr Alex Potanin, Senior Lecturer in Software Engineering, and internationally-regarded New Zealander Robert O’Callahan who set up and runs Mozilla Firefox’s New Zealand arm.
The Auckland Mozilla office concentrates on hardware acceleration or improvements that allow browsers to quickly load big, graphic-rich websites.
Recent graduate Jan Larres, who came to Victoria from Germany to complete his Master‘s degree, has conducted the latest project with his year-long research effort focused on accurate testing of the Firefox browser’s speed.
“Speed,” says Dr Potanin, “is becoming one of the fundamental things that defines a browser. Google Chrome, for example, has a team dedicated to making its browser go as fast as possible.”
Firefox is free, open source software meaning anyone around the world with enough skills and knowledge can contribute to its development. Mozilla carries out automated, round-the-clock testing to gauge which innovations from its community of developers are helping the browser run faster.
But, says Jan, even when two identical computers with identical set-up run the same tests, there are variations in the speed at which the tasks are completed because of “noise” or electronic interference.
“That makes it difficult to judge which developments are really beneficial to the speed of the browser and which aren’t.”
Jan’s research investigated how the Firefox product handles web browsing and the make-up of the software itself.
He says some issues were relatively easily identified, such as the browser taking longer to load data for the first time than subsequent occasions when it loads information from the same source.
Other issues, such as the complex scheduling that prioritises different actions a browser is performing, also have an impact but are harder to do anything about, he says.
In addition to giving Mozilla valuable new information about its testing programme, Jan carried out a statistical analysis that estimates how much variation in speed can be attributed to interference, allowing Mozilla to more accurately identify changes that are accelerating the browser.
Mozilla recently flew Jan to the United States to present his findings to the annual get-together of its global development community.
Mozilla Firefox is currently the world’s second most popular web browser, used by around 21 percent of people worldwide. Internet Explorer heads the list at around 50 percent, although its market share has been declining steadily in recent years. Google Chrome has a 15 percent share.
Dr Potanin says Victoria’s relationship with Mozilla Firefox is giving students valuable, real-world experience.
“Victoria hosts the leading southern hemisphere team with expertise in object-oriented programming languages. Robert O'Callahan's background as a programming language researcher at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center before joining Mozilla meant an existing collaboration with Victoria flourished once he opened a Mozilla branch in New Zealand.
“As well as carrying out cutting edge research, students who work on projects for Mozilla often end up being offered a job, as the company’s policy is to hire people who make a strong contribution to the development of its software.”