Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 12:42 UK

From Spitfires to sensors

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Spitfires were developed at Hursley in the 1940s

The software that underpins billions of financial transactions made every day is being developed at an IBM lab in a quiet part of Hampshire.

Hursley House has been part of IBM's history for 40 years, but its role in technology development stretches back even further.

Walking around the grand surroundings of Hursley House, through the beautifully restored rooms of the mansion, and the more ascetic corridors and spaces of adjoined labs, all you can hear is the quiet hum of desktop computers.

Sixty six years ago and the noise from the main house and grounds would have been the roar of Rolls Royce engines attached to arguably the most famous fighter plane of all time - the Spitfire.

During World War II Hursley House was the base of operations for Vickers, manufacturers of the iconic plane that helped turn the Battle of Britain in the UK's favour.

For the last five decades the house and grounds have been owned by IBM and has been devoted to research and development.

Broader transformation

Over five decades the work that goes on in Hursley for IBM has reflected the broader transformation of Big Blue itself - from hardware company to software and services firm.

Once, IBM was at the forefront of computer development, these days IBM is more likely to be helping drive cutting edge software solutions, and focuses primarily on development.

"Life is full of constants that aren't invariables that won't," says John McLean, director at Hursley, quoting his maths professor at university.

Mr McLean is explaining IBM's attitude to development - investing in product applications that could shape our future.

"There's a huge amount of history here. We have been through the whole emergence and change in computing technology in the last 50 years," he explains.

Purely software

From research into chip technology, graphic display technology, and storage devices, over time Hursley has transitioned to a purely software development lab.

People want to be able to manage and monitor their energy usage
Andy Standford-Clark, IBM

It is now at the centre of two key technology developments - transaction processing and pervasive messaging.

"Every time you use an ATM, book a holiday or a flight, you are probably using CICS software that was developed here," he explained.

Tied inextricably to CICS, is IBM's pervasive messaging middleware, called MQTT, that guarantees delivery of data from point A to point B.

We live in a world in which intermittent outages in technology or web access are common, but in the global finance sphere such things are unacceptable.

Testing out applications for pervasive messaging happens in the Emerging Technologies lab; a small set of rooms that houses demonstrations which, at first glance, would appear to be more at home at a school science fair.

Assorted Lego

But the assorted Lego pieces, unassuming computers and screens, flashing objects and mock-ups of homes, is part of a messaging technology that points to a future when we live in an "internet of things".

It is also tied to IBM's ambition as a company to build a "smarter planet".

Hursley is all about developing real world applications for its technology.

For example, if you need to take the company shuttle from Hursley into nearby Winchester you can find out its location by using Twitter, thanks to the work done by the Emerging Technologies lab.

The bus "tweets" its location as it makes its way around the campus and into town - it will even tell you how many people are on board so you know how if there is any room.

It is a simple example of how IBM's messaging technology has applications beyond the world of financial transactions.

Distinguished engineer

Professor Andy Standford-Clark, master inventor and distinguished engineer, says the Lab is "where we try out new technologies all connected through IBM's messaging middleware".

IBM's MQTT messaging technology is a platform-agnostic system which can connect almost any networked object to the wider world.

"It's very easy to add new things to IBM's messaging middleware. It could be any piece of content you need to arrive securely," explained Professor Standford-Clark.

IBM's MQTT starts with a small piece of computer code - either in Java or C - that can be embedded into a device, such a sensor, and which talks to a server, called the message broker. It in turns sends the message out to clients in whatever form is needed.

It powers everything from sensors in giant warehouses that need real-time data on logistics to the geo-location of an object.

Professor Standford-Clark has turned his home into a living, breathing demonstration of the technology.

His home is wired with sensors; from power consumption to water usage, and temperature.

The data from those sensors is transmitted over MQTT and then displayed in a variety of ways: from ambient lights that change colour depending on how much energy is being used, web-based real-time statistics in the form of graphs and charts and even a Twitter feed.

The house "tweets" every few hours with updates on its energy consumption.

The experiment with the house is about showing potential partners real-world applications for the technology - from uses in healthcare, telematics, logistics and manufacturing.

Real time

Professor Stanford-Clark believes real-time monitoring of personal energy consumption could become the next social networking trend.

"I think people are concerned about their energy consumption. And being able to compare your consumption with a friend could become a sort of social currency.

"People want to be able to manage and monitor their energy usage and feel good about saving the world and putting money back in their pocket."

And because the monitoring system is also tied to home automation Professor Standford-Clark can turn devices on and off remotely.

Mr McLean believes Hursley is a core part of the innovation gene pool of IBM.

Of the 4,000 patents registered by IBM last year, 300 of them originated from Hursley.

"Development is the gearbox of taking initial ideas and research and applying them to products," says Mr McLean.

"And Hursley is a vital part of that gearbox."

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