Glenn Wightwick is an IBM Distinguished Engineer, Director of the IBM Australia Development Laboratory and IBM Australia Chief Technologist.
He spoke with iTWire on a wide range of software and hardware technology issues, how IBM is addressing them across the globe, as well as the nature and scope of research and development work being carried out by the IBM Australia Lab.
Did you know that IBM Australia now has some 15,000 employees (it was less than 5,000 when I retired in the 1990s).
The IBM Australia Development Lab has locations spread right across Australia, with some 600 staff, which makes it one of the largest R&D organizations in the country. To put that into perspective, and picking just one other US-headed IT corporation with a notable presence here Down Under, I've been told that Microsoft Australia has something like 700 employees altogether.
I've often pondered IT multinationals and how they contribute to a particular nation, this being a topic for another blockbuster debate in its own right. Regarding the two corporations already mentioned, I've previously written a little on the matter, see: Which one is "bigger" -- Microsoft or IBM?
While it's certainly true that Microsoft currently has a lot of mind share, that's usually restricted to what I'd term "lighter" aspects of IT (such as desktop operating systems and office suites). They don't have the vast range of hardware, software, services and worldwide R&D of Big Blue.
Getting back to the IBM Australia Development Lab interview, we find that the Lab works directly with its clients on diverse software and hardware projects, such as security products in the IBM Tivoli area, web content management, Linux kernel work for the IBM Power microprocessor.
The Australian Lab — one of about 75 IBM labs across the globe — has locations right around the country, generally not working on products exclusively but as part of this global network. Projects are allocated based on skills and capabilities of the different teams.
For example, one of he the IBM web content management products is developed in Sydney, in close cooperation with the IBM labs in Beijing, Boeblingen (in Germany) and Raleigh (in North Carolina). And in Perth, there's a team of about 150 engineers working on mainframe software.
In Canberra, a team of about 25 engineers that all have deep expertise in the Linux kernel is working on microprocessors, including the Cell microprocessor (which can be found in the PlayStation 3 gaming console).
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Glenn Wightwick discussed open standards, IBM's contributions (such as the Eclipse Project), and the reasons behind IBM's recent announcement of a new IT standards policy.
He preferred, however, to not say much about IBM's involvement with the attempted "hijacking of Linux" by SCO, and Microsoft's OOXML fight against ODF, since he thought there was already much written about these topics.
We discussed scientific computing (a.k.a. supercomputing), realt-time Linux and real-time Java, the Australian bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (a worldwide endeavour to build the world's largest radio telescope), and computing on a massive scale in general.
"We have well and truly moved beyond the environment of ten or fifteen years ago where transaction ruled and we measured systems only in terms of their transaction processing capability and throughput. ... Increasingly we are seeing enormous amounts of information arriving in real time events, that we refer to as stream computing, and what you're trying to do in those environments is make sense of very large amounts of information flowing in continuously.'
"You don't necessarily know what you're looking for. You might be seeing a whole bunch of data flowing in from wire services and across the Internet, financial information and so on."
"You might be looking for patterns and trends emerging that might enable you to understand particular trends and take decisions. There are some very interesting large computing problems in that space that we are beginning to take on as well."
Asked about the importance of the study of algorithms, Glenn Wightwick responded that algorithms are absolutely core to these sorts of problems, as important as they have ever been.
He described "System S" (exploratory Stream Processing Systems project at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center) where the size and complexity of these problems demands that you understand how they'll perform.
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The iTWire discussion with Glenn Wightwick moved on to the ever-increasing pace of technology change (twice as much processing power or disk space per dollar as you could get 18 months ago). In the disk drives areas, flash memory is starting to appear because solid state disk drives have about 100 times the random input/output performance of normal magnetic disk drives.
On the processor side, "it's really important to be able to understand the problems that you're solving and to be able to map that problem effectively through algorithms — in many cases, parallel algorithms — to exploit the multiple different processor cores that are available now on processors from IBM and other companies."
Glenn next described the locations of the various IBM labs around the globe where pure and applied research is carried out. "A lot of the research is oriented around trying to anticipate and drive the direction of the technologies that we might then implement if three or four or five years out, in our various different hardware and software products."
"Increasingly, we're using our research capabilities to help our clients. ... Our research team will bring their expertise in mathematical optimization, or whatever the case may be, to help the client solve what they considered to be an intractable problem. Our research organization covers pretty much the entire spectrum, from fundamental research through to some really interesting applications areas as well."
The interview continued with with quantum computing and other coming technologies. One example is IBM's work on nanotechnology and around carbon nanotubes in particular.
We finished on the popular topic of the "eureka moment" and the process of turning fundamental research into useful products for IBM and its clients.
The audio file for this enlightening podcast with Glenn Wightwick (Director of the IBM Australia Development Laboratory and IBM Australia Chief Technologist) is available here (MP3 format, file size approximately 10.0 MB, duration 25:28).
Want to find out more? Here's a brochure about the IBM Australia Development Laboratory (PDF document, file size approximately 3.6 MB)
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