Infinite Possibilities

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2006-12-11 Print this article Print

IBM researchers are developing middleware that would let mobile devices share data.

IBM Research is working on a middleware system that will enable users to tap into the data on mobile devices to create a virtually unlimited pool of data and provide essentially infinite access to the Internet.

Stefan Schoenauer, an IBM researcher at the companys Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif., said IBM Research, as part of the companys IBM Extreme Blue program, has developed a prototype of a data-sharing middleware platform for mobile devices. The platform will enable heterogeneous devices, regardless of their operating systems or hardware, to access the network via various communication modes, including device-to-device direct communications.

The middleware platform, code-named Infinity, will allow users to use mobile devices to search and analyze limitless amounts of data that were previously inaccessible, said Schoenauer, the lead researcher mentoring the core team that devised the Infinity project. In addition, the system has a built-in security and privacy feature that allows users to control authorized access levels.

What prompted the project was a big "what if," Schoenauer said—what if all the data stored in devices such as cell phones, PDAs, RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips and USB sticks could be accessed the way Web sites are accessed today? The possibilities for new applications would be infinite, the IBM team decided.

Indeed, IBMs research team said it believes Infinity will significantly transform the Internet by enabling access to the worlds highly distributed data sources. Moreover, the technology marks a critical first step toward exploring how integration in mobile ad hoc networks could precipitate the growth of a new information marketplace, the team said.

Mark Dean, IBM fellow and vice president at the Almaden Research Center, sees a number of potential uses for Infinity, from Web 2.0 scenarios to use in IBMs core middleware platform. "The Infinity project could yield opportunities for us in WebSphere," Dean said. "I could see us putting the Infinity capabilities to use to enable mobile devices and game consoles to access information accessible to particular devices."

IBM officials said Infinity will provide a middleware framework for linking heterogeneous mobile devices into real-time, mobile, ad hoc networks that can process queries and share data. With the rapidly increasing number of mobile phones, PDAs and other portable computing devices, Infinity could help shift the Internet from a network of pages to a network of data sources, researchers said.

Infinity is based on a number of industry-standard technologies including XML, HTTP, HTML, JavaScript and Bluetooth. "We came up with this broad vision that mobile devices have a lot of capacity and what we could do with all the data on these devices," Schoenauer said. "We have all this data in a lot of different formats, and its the middlewares job to translate those different formats."

IBMs prototype holds promise because there is no standard way to share data between diverse mobile devices directly in ad hoc networks. Further, because the variety of mobile operating systems offers so many different programming environments and interfaces, applications have to be custom-developed for each platform. The vast number of data types, database software and connection hardware makes it difficult to achieve broad-spectrum mobile device integration. Infinity technology will improve cross-platform integration and communication for mobile applications and will enable application developers to more easily develop applications for a variety of mobile devices, researchers said.

Moreover, Schoenauer said one of the major elements of the Infinity platform is to have the middleware work across platforms. "Whats there now is a scattered spectrum, and, with this middleware, we can have a unified platform," he said. "The middleware itself looks very much like a Web server on the Internet. The applications are HTML pages with some JavaScript, and they communicate via HTTP."

So far, IBM has tested Infinity using a variety of devices, including Windows Mobile 5.0 devices, various PDAs and a series of cell phones, "and we got them all to work together. But we havent tried it out on all possible platforms yet," Schoenauer said.

Possible applications for the Infinity middleware platform include traffic monitoring, disaster recovery and basic data search, Schoenauer said.

In the traffic monitoring scenario, cell phones could receive data by directly contacting other mobile devices that are in the route a driver is planning to take. Data would be relayed from device to device directly via Bluetooth or GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). In disaster recovery scenarios, where cell phone towers might be damaged, Infinity would allow for direct communications between cell phones.

Meanwhile, in the enterprise, the platforms privacy and security features stand out. For instance, clients data could be shared only with a business units members via phone-to-phone direct communications, researchers said. Or in hospitals, patients information would be shared only with authorized doctors, nurses and care providers.

"This is something the enterprise needs and will use," said Theresa Lanowitz, an analyst with Voke. "However, this type of technology should go well beyond mobile. Mobile is an important and critical component, but the emphasis should really be on connecting all devices, not just mobile. The middleware should be designed to work with device software otherwise known as embedded software."

Speaking on the concept of Infinity, Lanowitz added: "There are countless devices [not all of them mobile] roaming the enterprise. Having the ability to connect these devices, which are often seen as rogue, to the network via a variety of communication modes is the first step in really completing the enterprise supply chain."

No timetable has been set for a commercial release of Infinity, though IBM tends to get technology from its Extreme Blue program into the market quickly, Dean said.

To Infinity and beyond

IBM Researchs prototype data-sharing middleware for mobile devices relies on industry standards as well as in-house technology, including:

  • Bluetooth For device communications

  • HTML and JavaScript For application development

  • HTTP For communications between application and Infinity middleware

  • XML For exchanging information

  • IBMs Hippocratic database technology for privacy and security

Source: IBM Research

Darryl K. Taft covers the development tools and developer-related issues beat from his office in Baltimore. He has more than 10 years of experience in the business and is always looking for the next scoop. Taft is a member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and was named 'one of the most active middleware reporters in the world' by The Middleware Co. He also has his own card in the 'Who's Who in Enterprise Java' deck.

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