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IBM Almaden Preps Spinoff

Craig Matsumoto
News Analysis
Craig Matsumoto
7/5/2007
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The IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) Almaden Research Center is preparing what appears to be its first spinoff, a data center play possibly aimed at storing or delivering massive quantities of video over the Internet.

Seval Systems Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., is being led by Winfried Wilcke, the founding chief technology officer and acting CEO, who's a program director at Almaden.

A spinoff would be a milestone for the research center. But it's got a long way to go to catch up with the Xerox Corp. (NYSE: XRX) Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) , which has had at least 15 spinoffs -- including SynOptics Communications, which eventually became part of Nortel Networks Ltd. , and ContentGuard, a joint venture with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) that got acquired by Microsoft, Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453), and Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX).

Almaden is keeping Seval under wraps for now, but Wilcke tells Light Reading the spinoff is based on Almaden's Intelligent Bricks hardware, a project nicknamed IceCube.

Publicly demonstrated in 2003, when it was in the prototype stage, IceCube involves modular units of storage -- black boxes, literally -- that can be stacked into a big ol' cube. The idea is to build a large-scale server that's made up of cheap, modular pieces that are networked together.

Each brick contains disk drives, processors, and networking hardware. Each brick talks to all six of its neighbors (fewer, if it's on the side of the cube). Space between the bricks provides for air cooling, or in really big cubes, liquid cooling.

IBM claims this approach provides a larger scale of storage array (or storage server) without taking up a lot of space or incurring a lot of cost. The cheap bricks might fail occasionally, but the overall cube is reliable, because data can be quickly replicated among multiple bricks. When one brick goes down, the others know to tap different sources for data.

So, what's Seval going to do with this? Well, the setup would be useful for handling high-bandwidth applications -- like video.

Internet video traffic is expected to grow exponentially for the next few years and, inside data centers, space and power are precious commodities. So Seval might be trying to apply Intelligent Bricks to the storage and delivery of video. That Wilcke has been seen cruising shows like the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference supports that theory.

Wilcke declined a request this week to discuss Seval further, which suggests IBM might be close to announcing it. A representative at the Almaden lab couldn't be reached for comment.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

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