IBM Storage Systems Research is part of the company’s overall annual R&D investment of $6 billion. IBM research organizations work within the company itself but also participate in the scientific/technical community, with academia and government, and with clients and alliances. IBM has a long-term history of world-class research spanning many IT eras across a wide range of technical disciplines. The company has been the U.S. patent leader for 18 consecutive years.
As part of IBM Research, the challenge for Storage Systems Research is to deliver the innovation required to deal with the continuing huge explosion of data that shows no sign of slowing down while storage budgets are likely to remain relatively flat. To close the huge gap between what enterprises will demand and what they can afford, IBM Storage Systems Research is focusing its attention on a key set of initiatives: solid-state information systems, storage for clouds, archive systems, scale-out file systems, autonomic storage management and advanced storage controllers.
That is an impressive list of initiatives in itself, but we need to understand how innovation at a large IT vendor, such as IBM, differs from innovation at smaller or startup firms. The IT industry needs both, but startups typically target one product aimed at existing or emerging commercial markets with delivery slated within a few years, plus or minus. This tight focus is due to capital funding tending to be tight.
Contrast those conditions with that of a well-funded vendor like IBM. Obviously, IBM Storage Systems Research does not have unlimited funds and they have to justify its use of capital for projects. However, the company can prioritize over many projects and allocate funding as appropriate without worrying about capital starvation. (Although, at least some project managers at IBM are likely to feel that they didn’t get enough.) IBM also has the freedom to focus on long-term projects. IBM Storage Systems Research invests 40% of its budget on exploratory projects and technology not in any commercial product plan but that would meet unmet significant future customer needs as long as five to 10 years out. Obviously, startups cannot do that yet. These are the sorts of efforts that deliver significant breakthroughs that can change the face of the industry.
The other difference is in what risk means to startups in contrast to IBM. Since innovation requires coming up with something new, all innovation involves real risk.