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Building The Next Net

Building The Next Net

Wednesday, August 22, 2001

IBM Team Leader Sees A Faster, All-pervasive Online Infrastructure

By JOHN M. MORAN; Courant Staff Writer
The Hartford Courant


A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN PATRICK — IBM Vice President for Internet Technology

Hobbies: A former pilot of small planes he now flies virtually, using Microsoft Flight Simulator. He is a frequent traveler and uses global positioning system to keep track of journeys.
Musical interests: A childhood clarinetist he is now a classical music buff
Favorite composer: Mozart

John Patrick swings open a door within the IBM campus in Southbury to reveal a roomful of the latest in Internet technology: servers, routers, supercomputers and more.

More important, though, is the team of programmers and technicians who work here, prodding the equipment to see what it can do and dreaming of new ways to make it work better.

Teams like this are in the vanguard of IBM’s effort to understand the Internet of the future, the so-called “Next Generation Internet.”

“The next generation of the Internet has no arrival date. But each day, we get a step closer,” said Patrick, IBM’s vice president for Internet technology. “The pace is going to continue to accelerate.”

Brushing aside the dot-com meltdown that dominates today’s headlines, Patrick, 55, of Ridgefield, sees a future Internet that is radically better than the slow, clunky, uncertain network we know today.

Tomorrow’s Internet, Patrick says, will be faster, more reliable, more responsive, more secure and more readily available — to name just a few enhancements that are on the way.

On this new Internet, people will be able to gather information, do business and communicate more effectively than ever. “Good technology development is all about people and giving them the flexibility to be creative,” he said.

Helping invent this Next Generation Internet preoccupies Patrick, who still recalls vividly the day that IBM finally got serious about the global computer network.

The year was 1996 and IBM was showcasing its number-crunching supercomputer, known as “Deep Blue,” by pitting it against Gary Kasparov, the world’s acknowledged chess champion.

To promote the event, a public relations company hired by IBM created a website to deliver information about the man-vs.machine matchup. But in no time, the website crashed under the weight of Internet chess fans.

“It just could not handle it,” Patrick said. “At the time, nobody really knew much about websites.”

IBM experts eventually got the chess site back up and running, but the event proved to be a major wake-up call for the company’s Internet strategy.

In the mad scramble that followed, IBM beefed up its Internet team and gave them office space at the IBM campus in Southbury. There, team members worked frantically to make sure IBM was able to provide online results for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

“What scared us was, if there are that many people interested in a chess match, what’s this Olympic thing going to be like? And we began to envision 17 Super Bowls for 17 days straight. What kind of website do we need to build for that?” Patrick said.

The intense preparation helped the IBM Olympic site avoid a meltdown — and convinced IBM to keep the team working on ways to realize the Internet’s potential.

Since then, the IBM Internet technology group has tried to create a balance between working in the present and focusing on the future.

“We’re not like IBM Research, which has thousands of Ph.D.s looking five years out and 10 years out, inventing brand-new ideas,” Patrick said. “And we’re not IBM product development, which is very tactical in building things for today and translating it into 29 languages and supporting it. We’re in between.

“I call it prototypers. We experiment. We try things,” he said.

Over the years, Patrick’s team has done much to explore how a network can help employees communicate better and get work done.

An example of the team’s work is the “Blue Pages,” a networked company directory that gives everyone at IBM access to everyone else’s contact information.

“In a matter of weeks, it became instantly popular all over the company,” Patrick said. “And that really opened our eyes that we could really have an impact on this company by eating our own cooking, by building an application that worked with existing IBM technology and leveraged it and took it step beyond where maybe it was intended to go.

Another example is an instant messaging system called “VP Buddy,” short for “virtual places buddy list.” This software program gives IBM employees the chance to see who else is online, to send and receive instant messages, and even to convene a virtual meeting.

“We just put it out there and, by word of mouth, we went from zero to 250,000 users,” Patrick said. “That’s what people use when you have a quick question of a colleague. You don’t call them. You don’t send them an e-mail. You just look to see if they’re online, and if they’re online you just send them an instant message. They answer you, and you’re finished.”

In choosing Patrick to lead its Internet efforts, IBM settled on a quintessential gadget fanatic.

For as long as he can remember, Patrick has been fascinated by technology. As a teenager, he toyed with repairing radios and televisions. As an adult, he flew small planes and has tinkered with his own website at johnpatrick.com. From global positioning systems to MP3 music files, if it involves a new technology, Patrick is interested. And the Internet, of course, is the ultimate gadget.

As Patrick’s thinking about the Next Generation Internet has evolved, he’s been compiling those thoughts into various personal essays and an upcoming book titled “Net Attitude” (Perseus Books, due in October).

Seven key features, he said, will characterize the new Internet. It will be fast, always-on, everywhere, natural to use, intelligent, easy and trusted.

It might, for example, respond to voice commands, use voice-prints to identify users, or translate from one language to another. It might be embedded in the walls and objects around us. It might be wireless and able to anticipate user needs.

All this, Patrick said, points to an Internet that must be far more reliable. To bring that about, IBM is betting millions of dollars on something called “autonomic computing.”

Autonomic computing would allow Internet servers and other equipment to diagnose malfunctions, fix them, route around them and notify repair personnel, as needed. In other words, the computer that helps to maintain itself.

“Autonomic computing is a vision that we have at IBM to allow server infrastructures to be able to self-manage and self-heal,” Patrick said. “It’s our vision to be able to provide an infrastructure that is very highly automated, that manages itself.”

http://articles.courant.com/2001-08-22/business/0108220238_1_deep-blue-ibm-vice-president-ibm-s-vice