About five miles south from the city of Winchester in England is the village of Hursley, home to just 800 people. A visitor to the village cruising down the winding main road may be surprised to notice a turn-off with a sign bearing the IBM logo. This seemingly anonymous village in the south of England has been home to IBM’s research and development work in the UK since it opened in 1958.
IBM Hursley, which takes up residence at Grade II listed, 18th century Hursley House, is the biggest of the company’s software development labs in the UK and acts as a test bed for client software. It’s home to the Hyperscale Cloud Data Centre, an “Emerging Technology” lab, an Internet of Things lab, the IBM Studio of multiple offices, and even and IBM Museum showcasing 60 years of R&D developments.
The hub doesn’t tend to open its doors to the public, but Computer Business Review popped along for its one-day “Festival of Innovation” event celebrating the last 60 years. Here’s what we found on our arrival.
Old with the new is an apt description of the juxtaposition that makes up IBM Hursley’s interior. Lavish furnishings, old oak panels, elaborately carved ceilings, and plush velvets accompany an array of IBM clients and developers showcasing new tech solutions and prototypes. It’s faintly reminiscent of the elaborate and unusual settings favoured by MI6 quartermaster Q to showcase new gadgets in an early Bond film.
For the event, IBM has divided technologies into separate zones: there’s the cloud room, security room, AI room, IoT room, and the enticingly named “Mad Science” room, with a focus on IBM Makerspace technologies. This zone is like a tech version of Willy Wonka’s Inventing Room, with coloured lights, flashing control pads, and a full-scale model of R2 D2.
In the AI room, Watson is a natural focus. There’s a hackathon using Watson AI Assistant to show multiple chatbots as murder suspects playing against each other; a movie predictor, which asks questions and suggests movies based on your answers; and virtual assistants on IBM Cloud that provide detailed and complex answers about bank accounts and spending.
In the cloud zone, CBR has a go on the “Internet of Empathy” high striker, which gauges your mood based on a single message inputted into Slack and lights up a 3D-printed fairground hammer. In the emerging tech zone, a face ageing” system uses biometrics and machine learning to predict what people’s faces will look like when they’re older.
And up the hall in the security zone, virtual reality experiences are used as ways to improve security. A VR experience lets the headset wearer attempt to fend off a cyber attack, while an AR prototype app gives an extra dimension to cybersecurity briefing charts.
CBR is then taken to the IoT development lab. The route is long and involves multiple sudden turns down random corridors, as if it’s so top secret that IBM wouldn’t want you to remember the way if you somehow broke into the building.
Stefan Kwiatowski, technical consultant for IoT and AI at Hursley, shows off various uses of a range of sensors and circuit boards of all shapes and sizes, and how the data garnered from them is used by IBM Cloud.
He uses various sensors and remote switches to dim the IoT room’s lights and turn CBR’s seat round 180 degrees with the touch of a button.
On the lower ground floor of Hursley House is IBM Museum chronicling Hursley’s work and major research of the last 60 years. IBM says computer disk drives around the world still use a design for a swinging arm actuator that originated in Hursley in the 1960s. The design used a cigar tube, and the patent was eventually licensed to other companies, including Japanese manufacturers.
At the start of the following decade, IBM Hursley claims the first automated teller machine (ATM), for Lloyds Bank. IBM then began installing ATMs in banks and point-of-sale terminals in retail stores.
IBM Hursley: We Threw Bowls of Porridge at Our Hardware
Hursley developers tested the hardware’s resilience in all types by hosing it with water to simulate a downpour, and launching bowls of porridge at it to simulate “a rough Friday night”. Wander the high street of Winchester this Friday and I’m sure you’ll find those particular research tests weren’t in vain.
Hursley also claims responsibility for the software behind those ATMs, dubbed Customer Information Control System (CICS). Today, CICS processes billions of transactions every day, for sending tracking information, online trading, electronic ticketing, payroll, and retail distribution. IBM says it was the first Hursley product with a billion dollars in annual revenue.
At the start of the 1980s, Hursley designed the first colour terminal for the business desktop and the graphical Data Display Manager software for on-screen colour display. Hursley was also assigned the job of developing monitors and graphics cards that were part of the IBM PC product line at the time.
In 1993, IBM launched IBM MQ, the company’s message-oriented middleware products, eventually renamed WebSphere MQ the following decade and now IBM MQ. It integrates applications and data across platforms including mainframe, midrange UNIX, HP, Linux, and Windows. Later in the decade, IBM also launched WebSphere Application Server, the standard for web development online and used to create and manage business websites.
On the brink of the new millennium, current IBM CTO for the UK and Ireland Andy Stanford-Clark authored the first version of the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport messaging protocol, still used to connect IoT devices globally. Current and previous iterations of the standard have been used by Facebook for Messenger, AWS for Amazon IoT, and Microsoft Azure for its IoT Hub.
In a world being revolutionised by big data and connected living, what does the future hold for IBM Hursley?
IBM told CBR that the company is now “putting smart to work”.
“We feel optimistic that the newest technologies we’re developing in Hursley today will be essential to the world in the same way in the future — hardware, software, and open source, blockchain, Internet of Things, Swift@IBM, IBM Cloud, and machine learning.
“Plus we’re turning fundamental research into solutions. We’re continuing to combine the talent of our people and the ingenuity of our technology to change businesses and the world.”
Mission accomplished, back to base. Thanks for having me IBM Hursley, see you in 2078!