IBM alphaWorks: From software theory to fact

Summary:Senior engineering manager at IBM's software development community Laura Bennett discusses how the group helps turn research concepts from the labs into practical products

Semantic web, rapid application development, data visualisation and healthcare applications are just some of the emerging software types being investigated by IBM's alphaWorks division.

Established in 1996, alphaWorks is a web community for developers to preview and collaborate on emerging technology from IBM's research labs and turn them into commercial products. The IT giant claims much of alphaWorks's activity is aimed at developing new software types and standards — particularly around open-source principles.

As senior software engineering manager of IBM's alphaWorks, Laura Bennett oversees a team that is responsible for maintaining relationships with over 2,000 IBM research scientists around the world. An ex-programmer herself, Bennett's vision for alphaWorks is to extend the division's reach to a wider audience and extend the scope of software engineering as a whole. She wants to challenge the sceptics who see no value in the kind of conceptual-level programming alphaWorks encourages. caught up with Bennet at IBM Rational User Developer Conference 2008 in Florida to find out what the men (and women) in white coats will be looking at next.

How and why did you move from a pure-play programming role into a research-focused area such as alphaWorks, where so much of the technology you touch never sees the light of day?
I actually started my career in IBM Research and thought I would at some point in my career circle back to work once again with our researchers. It is alphaWorks's mission to help turn the technologies coming out of the research division into products, product features or open-source contributions.

Many technologies that start out on alphaWorks go on to be commercially available. So personally, I love the idea that I am part of a team that is responsible for helping to commercialise what is coming out of our IBM labs. Having received a MBA not too long ago, this affords me the opportunity to leverage both my technical expertise and my business knowledge.

You've recently built new communication channels into the alphaWorks offering to make it more accessible to students and hobbyists — how does this work in practice?
We recognise that the academic community can drive innovation and that students and faculties are looking to build and grow their skill sets, so all SaaS [software as a service] offerings on alphaWorks are offered with a terms of service agreement that has no time limits. Also, many of our downloadable technologies are offered to the academic community with more open terms and evaluation periods to encourage community development and adoption.

In addition to the academic community, other communities such as business users, venture capitalists, research institutions, technical communities and entrepreneurs also use alphaWorks to learn about emerging and disruptive technologies in the market.

We're all searching for the 'next big thing' in IT and, looking at the alphaWorks website, you seem to list areas such as multi-threaded applications, autonomic computing and Web 2.0 services as particularly noteworthy areas. What other aspects of programming would you direct our attention to in terms of areas to look out for?
Well, alphaWorks offers downloads and services in many emerging spaces of relevance to the technical community. Today our community is particularly interested in technologies including SaaS offerings, Web 2.0 and collaboration, semantic web, rapid application development, data visualisation and healthcare.

To date, 40 percent of technologies posted to the alphaWorks website have been incorporated into IBM products and today, over 200 technologies are available for download. What makes a prototype stand out to you and makes you think 'this one is going to work'?
One of alphaWorks's primary goals is to showcase technologies from the various IBM research and development labs around the world so early adopters can evaluate them and provide feedback. It is precisely this market feedback...

Topics: Tech Industry


Adrian Bridgwater is a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. Primarily working as a news analysis writer, he is also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant. His expertise extends across a wider transept of the enterprise IT landscape, including open source, data analytics and intelligence, clou... Full Bio

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