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IBM opens research to academia

Looking to foster ties to universities, IBM will give professors access to research and development technologies on its alphaWorks site.

IBM is extending an academic outreach program to give universities access to some of its cutting-edge research free of charge.

The company plans to announce on Thursday a license that will let academics use and distribute 25 software-development technologies hosted on IBM's alphaWorks emerging-technology Web site.

IBM's research and development labs sometimes release tools onto alphaWorks, a site until now geared primarily toward corporate developers. The current license gives people free access to software for only 90 days.

The new licensing terms let university professors download the alphaWorks software and use it as part of class curricula.

The first two universities expected to sign on to the research-access program are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, through its Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Big Blue's latest move to endear itself to more universities is part of the IBM Academic Initiative, a program launched about a year ago. Until now, participants got access only to IBM's commercial software, such as development tools, and favorable terms for acquiring IBM hardware.

The overall goal of Big Blue's academic program is to create a better pipeline of computer science graduates trained in standards and open-source products, said Gina Poole, vice president of developer relations at IBM.

IBM's infrastructure-software product line, such as database and programming tools, is largely built around standards, such as Java and XML. IBM is also a major backer of open-source projects, including Linux.

"The enrollments are really dropping off in IT degree programs, especially in the U.S., and that's going to cause a huge gap," Poole said. "It's really critical to work with schools so that they get what students need and graduates have skills that our customers need."

The academic arena is becoming an important one to influence adoption of corporate IT. Just as IBM has boosted efforts to endorse IBM-backed technologies, Microsoft has its own set of academic programs meant to get students familiar with Microsoft software.

Because of staffing and equipment restraints, computer science departments often have to make a choice between offering classes in either Microsoft's programming tools or open-source tools, said Haym Hirsh, the chair of the computer science department at Rutgers University.

Rutgers, which has a relatively close relationship with IBM, is one of the 1,400 universities participating in the IBM Academic Initiative.

The computer science department benefited from the program by getting access to an Eclipse-based development tool from IBM as well as a significant amount of "know-how and elbow grease" from IBMers to help train Rutgers' staff, Hirsh said.

"IBM is trying really hard to get universities and the workplace to be comfortable with open-source products," he said.

Some of the tools IBM is making available are simulation games to hone programming skills.

Hirsh said it's not clear that all of the technologies IBM is releasing on alphaWorks will be valuable as part of teaching curricula, as much of the software can be experimental. However, he said researchers will likely benefit from the tools IBM makes available.