From software theory to fact

newsmaker Laura Bennett, an IBM alphaWorks executive, discusses the emerging software types being investigated by her team and facing up to skeptics.
Written by Adrian Bridgwater, Contributor

newsmakerSemantic web, rapid application development, data visualization 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.

ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK caught up with Bennett at the IBM Rational User Developer Conference 2008 in Florida earlier this year, 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 commercialize 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 recognize 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 visualization 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 and interest that helps to determine the future development of the technology. Community interest has determined that many technologies on alphaWorks should be incorporated into existing IBM products, offered as new products or be opened up as open-source offerings.

Once a prototype has passed its first fitness tests, it then graduates to IBM developerWorks. Can you briefly explain this process?
Technologies have various 'graduation' paths through alphaWorks based on market interest. Some technologies, once they are more widely adopted, move on to developerWorks or various IBM products. Good examples of emerging technologies have moved to developerWorks are the Cell Broadband Engine technology which was premiered on alphaWorks several years ago.

With feedback and a growing user base, the technology was eventually moved on to developerWorks where a broader audience could engage with it and view content like articles, podcasts, wikis and blogs as the technology itself developed.

How do you react to your critics who say alphaWorks is just IBM's way of making sure it scoops up emerging talent before it has a chance to flourish in its own right?
Listen, alphaWorks is focused on presenting the best of the best in technology, getting user feedback and allowing the early adopter community to collaborate in driving these emerging technologies to become IBM products. We have successfully run this business for over 10 years and I think the proof is in the pudding.

How do you control the potential security concerns thrown up by bringing in externally originated code that may have embedded malicious elements inside it?
External data is only submitted in select SaaS offerings where users first accept a TOS (terms of service) agreement vouching for the origins and copyright of that material. IBM is vigilant in protecting the integrity of the technology and websites, so services, forums and other data points are policed to remove such material if it does occur.

Does IBM retain the copyright for all work developed under alphaWorks if the prototypes were originally proposed by independent third-party developers?
IBM does not take a stake in any intellectual property developed by a third party that may be showcased through alphaWorks. Third parties retain all rights to their technology.

During your tenure so far, what 'achievements' have particularly stood out to you as exceptional technology innovations?
There have been numerous graduations from alphaWorks that have had a significant impact for IBM. Of note is Unstructured Information Management SDK (UIMA) which pioneered concepts and frameworks in semantics. This technology was launched on alphaWorks in 2004 and has since been incorporated into various IBM products including OmniFind. Aspects of the technology have also become open source and are now being offered through SourceForge.

Also the Cell Broadband Engine, autonomic computing and grid computing technologies are great examples of areas where there was not a lot of information and early adopter audiences needed education as well as tools to innovate with to determine the potential of these technologies. All have since been widely adopted and become more mainstream over time.

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