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<< Back to November 2003 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the November 2003 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 15/No. 5, pp. 1, 5.]

IBM Research: A Center of Innovation

By Alfred Spector

With 3,000 employees in eight laboratories in six countries, the IBM Research Division has a broad and aggressive agenda in most fields underlying information technology, particularly in computer science. From its origin in 1945 as a Columbia University-based laboratory devoted to science, IBM Research has continually evolved its scope and mission, and played an essential role in the rapidly changing IT industry by producing a constant stream of pioneering contributions to both science and technology.

Through its inventions and innovations, spanning nearly 50 years, IBM Research has been prominent in shaping the evolution of the computing industry. For example: the first magnetic hard disk for data storage, the 305 RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control); FORTRAN, the first general-purpose high-level computer language that revolutionized computer programming; the one-device memory cell that became the industry standard for all Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) chips; the relational database concept; the foundations of compiler optimization, speech recognition technology; RISC architecture; copper chip interconnects; and scalable parallel computing.

Among their many scientific achievements, IBM researchers have been recognized for introducing the concept of fractals, the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, discovery of high temperature superconductivity in a class of ceramic materials, and pioneering nanotechnology. In recognition of their technical and scientific accomplishments, our researchers have received an array of prestigious awards and external honors, including five Nobel Prizes, five National Medals of Technology, four National Medals of Science, four ACM Turing Awards, a host of other society awards, as well as memberships in the National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering. In addition, more than 300 researchers have been elected fellows of such technical and scientific societies as the ACM, AAAS, APS, IEEE, and INFORMS. We actively publish in major journals and conferences, and we win many best paper awards. The ideas and inventions that have emerged from our research laboratories have helped to generate one of the most valuable patent portfolios in the world, an indication of IBM Research’s innovation.

The diversity of our worldwide research laboratories ( provides a rich source of ideas and technical expertise, and each facility has its own distinct focus. Established in 1961 as the Research Division’s headquarters, the T.J. Watson Research Center (, located in Westchester County, New York, includes three sites (Yorktown Heights and Hawthorne in New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts). Its 1,700 employees conduct research in a very wide range of areas, including computer science, electrical engineering, life sciences, materials science, mathematics, and physics. The Almaden Research Center ( in California, with about 400 employees, focuses on computer science, storage technology, physical and materials science, and services research. The Zurich Research Laboratory (, established in 1956, specializes in computer science and communications technology. Researchers in the Austin Research Lab (, which was founded in 1995, concentrate on high-speed microprocessors.

The Haifa Research Lab ( on the Haifa University campus in Israel conducts research in areas such as VLSI design, verification technology, storage, computer systems, and programming languages and environments. Research at the Tokyo Research Laboratory (, established in 1982, includes software and systems technology, knowledge management, speech technology, and optimization. The China Research Laboratory ( in Beijing was established in 1995. Its technical staff of more than 100 works in such areas as pervasive computing, multimodal interactions, information management, and business computing. Research’s newest facility is the India Research Lab (, established in 1998 on the campus of the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Researchers here work on e-commerce, knowledge management, machine translation, pervasive computing, and bioinformatics.

Amidst the challenges of capitalizing on its scientific and technological advances in a field of fast-paced change, IBM Research has explored and adapted approaches to accelerate the pace of transferring technology to development and to attaining success in the marketplace. A variety of ways have been implemented to expedite the transition of inventions into the marketplace. Joint programs with IBM’s product development laboratories have been established to focus on solving the essential technical problems necessary to evolve the product line, from systems and software to semiconductors and storage products. For the last decade, Research has been expanding its focus by working with customers to achieve competitive advantage. Our work with customers includes the First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) program, begun in 1996, in which researchers and customers partner to create solutions to solve real-life business problems and to explore new technologies for emerging opportunities. In November 2002, we announced a new initiative, On Demand Innovation Services (ODIS), a services arm of IBM Research that extends the technical reach of IBM’s Business Consulting Services by engaging researchers as consultants to bring innovative solutions to our clients’ complex business problems in such areas as business optimization and analytics, supply chain, security and privacy, and mobile enablement. Our Emerging Business Organization is involved in accelerating the commercialization of select Research projects. Over the years, the division’s philosophy has evolved and is summed up in the goal of being “Vital to the Future of IBM.”

Research’s wide-ranging technical agenda has a balanced portfolio of near- and long-term projects, as well as exploratory work that encompasses some 650 projects worldwide. Our recent initiatives in such areas as autonomic computing, low power, on-demand computing, information integration, grid computing, life sciences, continual optimization, and unstructured information management, and natural language reflect the changes and opportunities to impact and transform our industry.

The Research Division is organized into five “strategy areas” which are aligned with the major business units of IBM. These are Services and Software, Storage Systems, Personal Systems, Science and Technology, and Servers and Embedded Systems.

About one-half of our technical staff is part of the Services and Software strategy where the key focus areas include:

Distributed computing. Our research activities here are aimed at autonomic computing, systems management, e-utilities, grid computing, messaging, networking, and security and privacy.
Information and interaction. This area centers on information management, unstructured information, and user interface technologies.
Programming models and tools. Our efforts in this focus area are directed toward pervasive computing, software lifecycle, and web application programming models.
Solutions to business problems. Here, our research encompasses such areas as analytics and optimization, collaboration, business process integration, digital media, and e-commerce.

Our strategy areas for Storage Systems, Personal Systems, and Servers and Embedded Systems have very healthy amounts of computer science in them, focusing on topics such as operating systems, computer architecture, power-aware systems, massive parallelism, HCI, and numerous others.

Technical activities in our strategy areas cross many disciplines, but the core disciplines are: chemistry (, computer science (, electrical engineering (, materials science (, mathematical science (, and physics ( Researchers in many of these disciplines have organized themselves into Professional Interest Communities that span organizational and geographical boundaries. In computer science, for example, our extensive research program across our worldwide labs spans twenty different areas, from algorithms and theory, communications and networking, and data management to human-computer interaction, programming languages and software engineering, and the web. Our research areas in the mathematical sciences include operations research, statistics, algorithms and theory, and knowledge discovery and data mining.

IBM Research also has a long history of collaborating with the university community. Our interactions, both formal and informal, address the common interests of both the industrial research and academic sectors to explore scientific and technological challenges on a wide variety of topics. Our collaborations with faculty are international in scope. As part of our formal university programs, we have a highly competitive Ph.D. fellowship program to support outstanding doctoral students. We also have a Faculty Awards program to support innovative collaborative projects both in the United States and abroad.

Last year, we also sponsored the Eclipse Innovation Grant competition, a special faculty award program to promote the use of the Eclipse programming environment for research and teaching, and awarded 50 grants. Through our Shared University Research program, equipment grants are given to promote research of mutual interest. In addition, to foster our collaborative relationships, we invite visiting scientists and faculty to spend time at our labs. Many members of our research staff hold adjunct university appointments and some teach courses at nearby universities. Lastly, we have a significant summer internship program, which this past summer had approximately 400 students in the United States.

Participation in the technical community is an important aspect of the research environment. Staff members play an active role by participating in conferences and standards organizations, officiating in professional societies, as well as serving on conference organizing and program committees, editorial and technical boards, and advisory committees.

From its beginning, IBM’s research efforts have been about the future. For IBM, it is our innovations that define our leadership in the industry. And it’s this focus on innovation that will always propel us in our work.

For more information on IBM Research, please visit:

Alfred Spector ( is the vice president of Services and Software for IBM Research, and a member of CRA’s Board of Directors.

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