Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, IBM’s Hursley development lab outside Winchester has a rich and colourful history of innovation, and is still a vital resource within IBM’s global R&D organisation. CBR reports.
Since 100BC, the site of IBM’s Hursley development labs has variously been an Iron Age hill fort, a castle, a hunting lodge, a hospital, aircraft workshops, and the largest software development lab in Europe.
Hursley House has been occupied by the likes of Oliver Cromwell’s son, and churchman, academic and author John Keble — after whom Keble College, Oxford was named. Its illustrious history continued when IBM moved in, in 1958, and IBM Hursley quickly became a hot-bed of innovation – innovation that is very much alive and well as the facility celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Today, IBM Hursley has 3,000 employees on-site, including over 1,400 software developers. That team has applied for 750 patents since the millennium, and the labs has consistently played a vital role in IBM’s worldwide R&D organisation.
Staff include IBM Fellows, Distinguished Engineers, Master Inventors and other Senior Technical Staff Members. Cool job titles include ‘Metaverse Evangelist’,
‘Emerging Technology Specialist’, and ‘ThinkPlace Catalyst’.
Hursley hosts the largest Innovation Centre in Europe — a showcase for IBM’s software and hardware products — where new offerings are pioneered to drive growth for IBM, business partners and clients. A Technical Exploration Centre allows clients to try products before they buy them, while an Executive Briefing Centre, located in the historic Hursley House itself, provides tailored briefings from Hursley’s development and services teams for IBM’s customers.
Hursley has received national recognition on numerous occasions: in 1988 and 1992 the lab was honoured with The Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement, while in 2004 WebSphere MQ software won the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award — the first ever award given for software.
IBM Hursley takes its community relations seriously, too. Last year it ran 45 community events, reaching over 3,000 students in 85 local schools, colleges and universities. Recognising that the ability to attract talent is vital to its ongoing standing within IBM’s broader R&D organisation, it runs annual university outreach programmes to help develop the next generation of talent and encourage students to consider careers in the IT industry.
Annual outreach activities include a programme of internships, led by IBM’s 12-week summer internship — Extreme Blue — and the IBM University Team Challenge, a major national competition involving 19 top universities. “The most important thing is hiring good people,” explains Hursley Laboratory Director and Vice President, WebSphere Connectivity Development, John McLean. “It’s all about the people. If you can attract good people it drives up your cumulative value as a lab.”
Over the years, Hursley has proven its value to IBM and indeed the technology industry time and again. For instance, Hursley is responsible for IBM’s CICS secure transaction processing technology, which is so widespread it processes 30 billion transactions a day worldwide, not least underpinning most of the ‘holes in the wall’ that enable customers to withdraw cash where and when they need it.
WebSphere MQ, one of the most successful and fastest growing distributed middleware products in the industry, was developed at IBM Hursley. Meanwhile the Hursley-developed System Storage SAN Volume Controller (SVC) was one of the earliest virtualisation technologies, still in huge demand today.
In fact, IBM Hursley’s influence with the likes of CICS, WebSphere, SVC, Java and pervasive computing mean that whenever people do everyday things like book theatre tickets or holidays, shop online or even just top up their mobile phones, they are likely to kick off a series of business transactions enabled by technologies that have come out of IBM Hursley – though they are unlikely to ever know it.
THE EARLY HISTORY OF HURSLEY
You don’t have to dig very deep to uncover the richness of Hursley’s history. Remains of an Iron Age hill fort are thought to date the first settlement to 100BC, while there are suggestions of a Roman settlement in 100AD. With subsequent Saxon settlements, Merdon Castle was built by Bishop Henry de Blois at Hursley in 1138.
Hursley was surrendered to Edward VI in 1552 and returned to the Bishop of Winchester by Mary Tudor in 1555. Richard Cromwell lived there in 1649, becoming Lord Protector in 1658 (the title of Lord Protector was held by his dad, Oliver Cromwell, from 1653 to 1658).
After the Cromwells moved out in 1718, Hursley was owned by wealthy families including the Heathcotes and Coopers, who remodelled what by now was known as Hursley Park House: new wings were added, as well as the perhaps less significant but no doubt vital coal stores and laundry room.
The house’s top floor was used as a hospital during the First World War, while during the Second World War it was requisitioned by Lord Beaverbrook to house Vickers Aviation, which had been bombed out of its previous workshops in Southampton in 1940.
The iconic Spitfire fighter, designed by R. J. Mitchell and first flown in 1936, saw its development continued under new chief designer Joseph Smith at Hursley. The last jet developed by Vickers at Hursley was the Scimitar, capable of 710mph, and seeing service with the Royal Navy from 1958 until 1969. But by 1957 Vickers had vacated the Hursley site, as the British aircraft industry contracted.
THE IBM YEARS
IBM’s Hursley lab’s history all started with the establishment of IBM’s first British laboratory in London in 1957. The facility was soon running out of space, and as Vickers had moved out of the Hursley site, IBM’s scouts saw its potential and moved in, on 1st December 1958.
Ironically, given Hursley’s long history as an IBM lab, it was originally only conceived as a temporary home: IBM acquired land at North Baddeseley and had a state-of-the-art laboratory design commissioned, but in the end the firm would choose to modernise and extend the facilities at Hursley instead.
Important developments at Hursley came in quick succession. While Hursley today is considered primarily a software development lab, over the years it has been responsible for innovations and developments in both hardware and software. For instance the Hursley-developed Scientific Computer and Modulator Processor (SCAMP) was IBM’s first operating computer to use the concept of micro-program control.
Although SCAMP was eventually scrapped, much of what was learnt in its development was subsequently incorporated into the development of the System 360 Model 40 which replaced it – one of the first IBM mainframes.
In 1964 Hursley showed some of its software development prowess, when it played a major role in the development of the high-level programming language PL/I. By the late Sixties, IBM Hursley had developed a reputation for excellence. In 1969 the IBM 5444 Disk Storage Device — the first major device of this type to be developed at the Hursley Laboratory — provided the primary storage for the IBM System/3, one of the most successful small computer systems of its time.
In 1971 the System 370/Model 135 became the first major IBM product to be both designed and manufactured in the UK, with Hursley heavily involved in its development. Also in the Seventies, Hursley became associated with graphics and monitor expertise. By 1979, the boffins at Hursley had developed the 3279 Colour Display Station, which for the first time brought affordable colour graphics to the desktop – it quickly became ubiquitous in corporate IT departments as well as science and academia.
On the software side, 1974 was a milestone to say the least, as IBM transferred the development of CICS, the Customer Information Control System to Hursley.
At the start of the Eighties, Hursley demonstrated the Talking Terminal — a new feature of the 3278 Model 2 Display Station, which used a voice synthesiser to read text for blind or partially-sighted users. In 1982 it won the British Computer Society’s Social Benefit Award as the product offering the greatest social benefit during the year.
By the time IBM was celebrating 25 years at Hursley in 1983, 20,000 CICS licenses had been sold worldwide. But in 1986, as IBM launched the 9335 Direct Access Storage Subsystem, Hursley’s storage expertise was also growing. It would go on to pioneer SVC, one of the earliest virtualisation technologies and one that is still going strong.
But by this time it was really messaging, middleware and transaction processing software that IBM Hursley had become best known for. So it is little surprise when it was Hursley that was given the job of porting Java to all of IBM’s platforms in 1996. IBM inaugurated the Centre for Java Technology in the basement of Hursley House.
Also in the Nineties, the Hursley-led MQSeries message queuing technology became the market leader. By the start of 1998, it had 55% market share after just five years in existence.
In 2002, IBM completely refurbished Hursley House once more. Over the years the firm has added various new buildings around and behind the house itself, but it remains the centrepiece in the Hursley labs complex, and a constant reminder of their long and distinguished history.
With over 3,000 employees on site today housed for the most part in very modern facilities behind the historic Hursley House, IBM Hursley remains a bastion of excellence within IBM’s larger global R&D organisation. It is home to two IBM Fellows, 10 Distinguished Engineers, 19 Senior Technical Staff Members, 28 Master Inventors and members of the IBM Academy of Technology.
It is difficult to predict what will happen in the technology industry in 10 years’ time, let alone 50. But as Hursley Labs Director John McLean says, there is no reason IBM Hursley won’t be celebrating another anniversary in 50 years time, as long as it continues to attract the top talent and maintain its passion for innovation. Given its track record, and considering that it has helped to develop — and is still responsible for — technologies that most of us rely on each and every day, there are few who would doubt that IBM Hursley will be celebrating yet another milestone in 2058.
Read CBR’s entire special report on IBM’s Hursley lab at http://tinyurl.com/5smnqz.