As IBM marks its first century, Austin remains in a key role


  IBM Corp. will celebrate its 100-year anniversary Thursday an unusually long tenure for a company in the ever-changing technology industry.

Austin has been part of IBM's history for less that half of that time, but the city has become one of the company's most important research and development hubs.

With about 6,000 employees, Austin is IBM's second-largest single site in the U.S., although it's still less than 2 percent of the company's 400,000 employees worldwide.

And the Austin operations long have housed a significant portion of the company's brain trust, said Tony Befi , the company's senior state executive for Texas, who has overseen the Austin operations since 2001.

Last year, IBM Corp. topped the list of U.S. patent winners for the 18th year in a row, with 5,896. IBM Austin inventors, with about 950 patent awards for the year, were tied for first place within Big Blue.

"I expect that to continue and I expect that to expand," Befi said.

The Austin operations will share in the company's centennial observation Thursday with a town hall and reception at the company's North Austin offices, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell in attendance.

When the Austin site opened in 1967, it was a manufacturing plant for IBM's Selectric typewriter. Today, Austin is home to considerable research and development work for IBM involving advanced microprocessor design, including the Power chips used in supercomputers, and a wide variety of systems software development.

Notably, the site was deeply involved in building Watson, IBM's supercomputer that played "Jeopardy!" The Power7 processor, Watson's basic brain chip, was primarily designed in Austin, as was the Power 750 server.

As the company moves forward, Befi said the Austin site will be at the forefront of new advances in technology. One of those is advanced analytics, or using technology to solve business and industry problems.

Analytics will be increasingly applied in the health care field, but also in how cities operate more efficiently, from delivering water to managing electricity and traffic patterns, Befi said.

"You can just let your mind wander, and we're working in all these (areas)," he said.

The company is a major employer of University of Texas graduates and is a major sponsor of research in the computer science department, said Bruce Porter , chairman of the department.

"We've kind of grown together," he said.

The company also has a number of partnerships with the university. Porter and other faculty members have open agreements with the company, which make it easier for an IBM office to sponsor a research project with a particular professor.

Keshav Pingali , a UT computer science professor, said that IBM engineers also regularly attend department seminars and classes.

"The result of that is they help us keep our feet on the ground, so to speak," he said.

UT and IBM are working closely as the computer science department prepares to move into a new $120 million complex in 2013. IBM and university faculty are studying how to make teaching more effective by incorporating technology, and the new building will be "very influenced by these interactions with IBM," Pingali said.

Porter called the relationship a "strong positive feedback loop."

"The hand-in-hand growth of IBM and our department has led to the kind of high-tech economy that we have in Austin now," he said.

As IBM marks its first century, Austin remains in a key role.” | By Brian Gaar, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF| 

Updated: 8:50 a.m. Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Published: 8:56 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, 2011

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