IBM's Robert Morris likes to think he works in the world's largest laboratory.
However, unlike when he oversaw research at IBM's Almaden Research Center or worked on the company's ThinkPad notebook and its early hard disk drive storage systems, Morris' lab is no longer confined within the walls of IBM or academia.
Instead, Morris and a number of other top researchers, mathematicians and engineers within IBM are working to bring their years of in-depth know-how into the real world through IBM's Global Services Division. While IBM started this initiative in earnest about two years ago after its 2002 acquisition of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company is pushing to expand its services research into new areas, especially those of cloud computing and IBM's Smarter Planet initiative.
"All the things we're learning by applying science techniques, computer science, engineering, mathematics and all those things, we are applying to information technology," Morris, who is vice president of Services Research, said in a recent interview with eWEEK.
"We're finding those are applicable in changing other services such as health care, education services, government services and city services like water, energy, traffic," added Morris. "So, it has been very exciting [to go] from working in a lab and working on notebook computers and things like that, and now we find ourselves helping influence how a city works or how traffic flows in a city or how health care systems are delivered, all through IT."
While many IT companies have services divisions, IBM is one of the few applying the knowledge from its research arm to the practical development of services for businesses and government, said Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research.
After IBM bought PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company tried to find a way to build and package hardware and software for one company and then repackage it to sell to multiple customers.
"I don't know of anybody who is doing services research on the scale that IBM is doing it," King said, adding that IBM has since taken the IT services framework strategy from PricewaterhouseCoopers and greatly expanded those methods.
"IBM is using these frameworks to develop their services offerings," King said. "As IBM builds these workload-optimized systems for financial institutions, manufacturing, retail and so on, the storage and server and networking guys can come in and build replica solutions with the services guys."
Services remain a huge source of revenue for IT companies such as IBM and its competitors. In the first quarter of 2010, IBM's Global Technology Services segment pulled in revenue of $9.3 billion-a year-over-year increase of about 6 percent-while its Global Business Services unit saw revenue of $4.4 billion.
While IBM is likely to face increased competition in the services field from Hewlett-Packard, thanks to its EDS business, and Oracle, now that it has acquired Sun Microsystems, King said IBM remains ahead of the others in turning its research division into an engine for the other parts of the business.
For now, the areas that IBM Services Research are looking at vary, but many involve solving problems for local, state and federal governments-a major target for the Smarter Planet initiative-and cloud computing.
One example is how IBM is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to protect data that is moving through the network. Morris explained that IBM engineers developed a method of tracking data that is moving in a stream throughout a network, whether it's a government network or a large enterprise.
Engineers can place sensors around the network that can detect unexplained levels of data traffic that could be an anomaly or a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack.
IBM also uses its acquisition power to bolster both the research division and its services portfolio. Recently, IBM bought Cast Iron Systems, which specializes in cloud computing services, and while that acquisition is still being digested, Morris sees a way for IBM to deliver to customers the research that its engineers have done on the integration and composition of applications in the cloud.
"What is really powerful about IBM is having software products behind it," Morris said. "So, having something like Cast Iron Systems means that some of the latest work we have been doing in composing Web services and cloud services means that we now have a way to deliver them. We don't have to wait and build a product."
While cloud computing remains an area of IT that is still underdeveloped, IBM Research and Morris are beginning to discover methods that can bring cloud computing concepts into the practical world of day-to-day operations.
For instance, Morris sees desktop virtualization becoming the preferred method of delivering applications to users, and IBM is working on ways to use virtualization and cloud computing to better develop this new computing method.
In addition, IBM is working on ways to incorporate new types of discovery technologies and other features that were developed in the lab into its Tivoli management software. These can be used by the enterprises that buy Tivoli software or by IBM if a company signs an IT management contract.
"If IBM takes over the IT service ... we need to find all hardware and software out there," Morris said. "You find times when you have a data center and people are not sure what applications are running, so people just pull the plug. What we try to do is bring monitor and sensoring technology in that lets us trace everything up to the application level. This is a major part of research and how a company can transition to the cloud."