IBM charts “Rational” path to a smarter planet

A smart system that monitors the delicate ecological balance at a bay in Newfoundland, a traffic-tracking system in Chicago that combines video surveillance and real-time analytics, and an intelligent toll system in the Swedish capital, Stockholm that reduces vehicular congestion …

These, said an IBM executive, are but three examples of smart, interconnected, software-driven systems helping resolve real-world challenges.

One of their hallmarks is the way they seamlessly blend software with other elements, including electrical and mechanical systems, noted Grady Booch, chief scientist for software engineering, IBM Research.

Booch, widely known for developing the Unified Modeling Language with Ivar Jacobson and James Rumbaugh, was a keynote speaker at the five-day IBM Rational Software 2009 Conference in Orlando.

The event, which concludes today, drew around 3,300 attendees from 47 different countries.

The IBM scientist said the projects at Newfoundland, Chicago and Stockholm exemplify the incredible impact of “intelligent, instrumented and interconnected” systems on every business, sector, industry and geography.  

In the case of SmartBay — an initiative of the Marine Institute in Newfoundland in partnership with IBM — the goal is optimizing management of the delicate eco-system at Placentia Bay, located on the south coast of Newfoundland.

The scene of significant industrial activity, Placentia Bay is also considered an environmentally sensitive area, as it teems with diverse marine life.

The many small communities that fringe the bay rely to some extent on the adjoining waters for their livelihood.  

As part of the SmartBay project, Booch said, electronic sensors have been deployed on buoys to track the interaction between, pollution, marine life, and sea states.  

For instance, several meteorological buoys collect sea state and weather data, while other buoys track water quality.

Their information is fused with data from existing sources – including metrics from airborne sensors and online GIS and data visualization tools – to provide key stakeholders access to the information they need to effectively promote sustainable development of the coastal area.

IBM technologies — such as WebSphere and DB2 – are at the heart of the SmartBay system, Booch noted.

Embedded software – the silent thread

These and other projects, he said, exemplify a phenomenon that’s transforming software delivery across industries and sectors — embedded software.

Embedded software – defined as special-purpose software built into a larger system — is a key driver of most industries today, he said.

“And yet such software is mostly invisible to the masses, and it isn’t recognized by the end user as software in the traditional sense.”

Experts on embedded systems echo this view.  While most of the discourse around software revolves around IT systems, they note that such systems incorporate a mere two per cent of microprocessors produced.

“Most microprocessors are in systems for cars, mobile communication, washing machines, aircraft, robots, traffic management cameras and audio equipment,” say Christol Ebert and Jurgen Salecker in an article titled “Embedded Software – Technologies and Trends.”

Ebert is a partner and managing director at Stuttgart, Germany-based Vector Consulting Services GmbH, and Salecker is competence field manager for embedded systems at the Corporate Technology think tank at Siemens AG.

As embedded software gets more pervasive, they note, it is also growing tremendously complex.  

“Cars today have 100 Mbytes of software running with a complexity growing more quickly than that of IT systems such as those of SAP, Oracle and Microsoft.”  A typical modern car, note Ebert and Salecker, contains 30 to 70 embedded systems that communicate with one another across a variety of standardized bus systems.

Complexity confounded

The “inherent complexity” of embedded systems is a multi-dimensional challenge, according to Danny Sabah, general manager, IBM Rational, another keynote speaker at the Rational Conference.

Complexity, Sabah pointed out, exists at various levels – individual, team, organizational and business.

He said the thrust of IBM Rational’s strategy and products is to help businesses minimize this complexity at each of these levels.

One effective way IBM helps customers do this is by offering them “frameworks” – such as the Product Development Integration Framework (PDIF), said Scott Hebner, vice-president, marketing and strategy at IBM Rational.

He said PDIF — based on services-oriented architecture — is an overarching IBM-wide framework specifying end-to-end capabilities needed to deliver a product.

“It would cover everything required from mechanical, engineering, and electrical requirements to customer support issues, to new enhancements – as well as the software elements.”

The framework, Hebner said, accommodates today’s complex product development scenarios – where the development process may be shared across dozens or even hundreds of companies.

It gives them a way of collaborating and sharing product information even when they use different vendors’ enterprise systems.

Most importantly, he said, the framework helps link product design and development with the business process.

Collaborative innovation

The complexity of product development today calls for a significantly different set of skills and capabilities, noted Tom Hawk, general manager, global industrial sector at IBM.

He said many businesses are struggling with this, trying to design, develop and deploy products in a rapid, effective way with limited resources.

To help them with this process, he said, IBM offers an option dubbed “collaborative innovation.” 

Essentially this includes “exploratory” sessions between the customer and IBM, during which a range of things could be looked at: new business models, new work flows, ways of increasing productivity et al.

“I think of them as expanding the art of the possible,” said Hawk.

He said the hybrid hydraulics system that helped courier firm UPS save a whack of money, while improving its carbon footprint emerged from such collaboration – between UPS, Eaton (a large automotive supplier) and IBM.

The system uses hydraulic pumps and accumulators to regeneratively capture and store energy, instead of electric motors and batteries.

IBM’s modeling software, Telelogic Rhapsody, was a key tool used to develop the hydraulic-hybrid vehicle power trains used by UPS delivery vans.

Telelogic Rhapsody saves time in the development of these hybrid systems by modeling the control software, thus shortening the design cycle.

“By integrating new and existing technologies we were able to build this hybrid hydraulic smarter system that boosts fuel efficiency on UPS vans and reduces their C02 emissions.” (Fuel economy is enhanced by regenerative braking that recovers energy usually lost in friction braking).

Eaton also benefited from this collaborative venture, Hawk said.  “It was able to harvest that technology and is now using it in other applications with other partners.”

New tools

A dozen or so new products were announced at the Rational Conference, with at least three taking direct aim at enhancing software project management.

IBM Rational Insight, for instance, addresses this challenge by providing a dashboard that measures, monitors and analyzes software project performance.

The Insight tool, said IBM executives, can be optimized for an entire gamut roles, from lower-level project managers right up to the CIO.

Cognos, a business intelligence tool, allows Insight to look at the actual artifacts being created — the business models, requirements, test cases and code.  

Insight, says a Canadian analyst, would be handy as a “generic tool” for firms with larger software development projects under way.

“It ties together the low-level developer metrics with overall business direction,” noted Howard Kiewe, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in Toronto.

Insight, he said, is more of a generic tool that could help you whether you’re developing a smarter product, or you’re a more conventional software producer, or you’re customizing an ERP system for your company.

Collaborative project and resource management – even across geographical boundaries – is a focus of the second new product announced at the Conference, the IBM Rational Focal Point for Project Management.

The offering that’s still in beta is likely to be available by the end of 2009, according to David Locke, director of offerings management for IBM Rational.

A third new offering, the Measured Capability Improvement Framework (MCIF), provides what IBM describes as a framework for measuring results and managing projects.

The tool can measure results allowing project managers to incrementally improve software delivery, IBM said.

MCIF provides a logical methodology to discover problems in the software delivery process. From there it provides a solution.

All that Jazz

All three are products built on the Jazz collaboration platform, which IBM released to open source in 2007.

Hebner describes Jazz as an SOA implementation specific to the domain of software systems delivery.  

Software development teams, he noted, often waste a colossal amount of time and resources through faulty workflow – rework, poor communications, outdated information, manual handoffs between team members. “All that is just a recipe for errors and lost productivity.”

He said for software project teams, Jazz serves as a massive virtual memory. “It remembers who is working on what, what the requirements are. If those requirements change for some person overseas (for example) it ripples through and updates everybody. It fosters this notion of intelligent collaboration.”

For Info-Tech’s Kiewe, quite apart from what Jazz can accomplish –  the open development model used to create the offering is one of its most compelling facets.

IBM, he noted, is really the first large corporation to embrace such a model.

“It’s not open source in that people can’t contribute back to the source code. But all the source code is visible and downloadable. Bugs and feature requests can be logged on that site.”

That, he said, is radically different from approach adopted by Microsoft (for example) — which is also a large, established, conservative company. 

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