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Cloudflare's Approach to Research

Cloudflare is committed to building a better Internet for everyone. Research is part of that commitment in contributing to the advancement of bleeding edge technology and in advocating for those changes. We’ve learned that some of the difficult problems to solve are best approached through computer science research and experimentation to understand the solution before engineering it at scale.

A hybrid approach

Given the scale and reach of Cloudflare, research problems (and opportunities) present themselves all the time. Our approach to research is a practical one. We choose to tackle projects that have the potential to make a big impact, and for which existing solutions are insufficient. This stems from a belief that the interconnected systems that make up the Internet can be changed and improved in a fundamental way. While some research problems are solvable in a few months, some may take years. We don’t shy away from long-term projects, but the Internet moves fast, so it’s important to break down long-term projects into smaller, independently-valuable pieces in order to continually provide value while pursuing a bigger vision.

Successful technological innovation is not purely about technical accomplishments. New creations need the social and political scaffolding to support it while being built, and the momentum and support to gain popularity. We are better able to innovate if grounded in a deep understanding of the current day-to-day. To stay grounded, our research team members spend part of their time solving practical problems that affect Cloudflare and our customers right now.

Cloudflare employs a hybrid research model similar to the model pioneered by Google. Innovation can come from everywhere in a company, so teams are encouraged to find the right balance between research and engineering activities. The research team works with the same tools, systems, and constraints as the rest of the engineering organization.

Research engineers are expected to write production-quality code and contribute to engineering activities. This enables researchers to leverage the rich data provided by Cloudflare’s production environment for experiments. To further break down silos, we have a program that allows research engineers to be embedded into product and operations teams for temporary assignments in order to render direct exposure to practical problems.

Our goal is to enable a research environment that generates both new knowledge and technology that can lead to innovative products. Research works hand-in-hand with both product and engineering to help drive long-term positive outcomes for both Cloudflare and the Internet at large.

Open collaboration, open standards, and open source

Cloudflare’s massive popularity puts us in a very privileged position. We can research, implement and deploy experiments at a scale that simply can’t be done by most organizations. This makes Cloudflare an attractive research partner for universities and other research institutions who have domain knowledge but not data. We rely on our own expertise along with that of peers in both academia and industry to decide which problems to tackle in order to achieve common goals and make new scientific progress. Our middlebox detection project proposed by researchers at the University of Michigan, is an example of such a problem. Further engagements with academia are also facilitated by our recurrent internship opportunities.

We’re not purists who are only interested in pursuing our own ideas. Some interesting problems have already been solved, but the solution isn’t widely known or implemented. In this situation, we contribute our efforts to help elevate the best ideas and make them available to the public in an accessible way. Our early work popularizing elliptic curves on the Internet is such an example.

Popularizing an idea and implementing the idea at scale are two different things. Along with popularizing winning ideas, we want to ensure these ideas stick and provide benefits to Internet users. To promote the widespread deployment of useful ideas, we work on standards and deploy newly emerging standards early on. Doing so helps the industry easily adopt innovations and supports interoperability.

Open source software is another key aspect of scaling the implementation of an idea. We open source associated code whenever possible. Cloudflare Research collaborates with the wider research world as well as internally with other teams.