IBM Insight 2015, Security and the Cognitive Computing Journey

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  November 4, 2015

In last week’s Pund-IT Review, I wrote about the analytics-related offerings and events announced at IBM Insight 2015. This week, I’d like to cover two of the focus issues at the conference – IBM’s cognitive computing strategy and its security solutions and services – because they reflect fundamental changes within the company and across the broader IT market.

The cognitive journey

The spark for my comments on the former subject came from a discussion I had with Marie Wieck, the general manager of IBM’s Middleware portfolio, including the WebSphere, Tivoli, Rational, Digital Experience and Smarter Process offerings. When I asked if there was anything she thought that Insight attendees (including analysts) were having trouble parsing, Wieck replied, “That cognitive is a journey, not a destination.”

That resonated since I’d been having trouble organizing IBM’s various cognitive technologies, solutions, services and strategies into a coherent whole. Cognitive concepts were on full display at Insight, underscored in virtually every executive presentation and providing foundational elements in most of IBM’s new or updated commercial offerings.

In particular, the company spotlighted its Watson Analytics platform time and again at Insight – deservedly so, given the technology’s high profile. The domination of the Watson supercomputer with former Jeopardy! grand champions during a widely watched 2011 tournament has made Watson a poster child for cognitive computing in general and IBM’s efforts and investments in particular.

But Watson isn’t IBM’s only cognitive technology, let alone the sum total of its efforts. For example:

  • The company’s research into artificial intelligence (AI) dates back to the 1950s with a checker-playing computer that eventually led to the Deep Blue system that beat chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov in 1997.
  • For over a decade, IBM’s enterprise servers have featured “autonomic” software tools that proactively detect and repair system errors and other problems.
  • IBM hosted its first Cognitive Computing conference (Almaden Institute) in 2006, chaired by Dr. Dharmendra Modha who had helped drive much of the company’s pioneering research in cognitive computing, intelligent business machines and cortical simulations. The Research organization continues this focus with their Cognitive Computing Colloquium events each fall in California and New York.

In point of fact, IBM’s Watson began as an experiment in “Deep Q&A” in developing a voice-activated system that could successfully answer complex queries in near-real time (as it demonstrated so well on Jeopardy!). Since then, IBM has pushed Watson’s boundaries in terms of its ability to learn, understand and reason while also keeping an eye on its commercial applications, including the Watson Health efforts for healthcare scenarios.

At Insight 2015, IBM made it clear that Watson Analytics, which shares in the same cognitive direction that IBM Watson delivers, is an innovative tool that can be applied in business and industry scenarios of virtually every sort. That’s an ambitious view, but consider what IBM’s major competitors (Oracle, HP, etc.) are doing to bring cognitive innovations to their enterprise customers.

If you answered, “Pretty much nothing,” you’d be correct.

At Oracle OpenWorld (which ran at the same time as Insight 2015), company chairman Larry Ellison apparently answered the, “What the hell is cloud computing?” question he asked way back in 2008. At HP, CEO Meg Whitman and her team were making the final organizational and PR moves to separate the company’s core PC (NYSE: HPQ) and enterprise computing (NYSE: HPE) businesses. Whether enterprise customers can look forward to more HoPE than HyPE remains to be seen.

The point that IBM’s Marie Wieck made, that it’s important to consider cognitive computing as a journey, couldn’t be more spot on. But it’s also critical to recognize that the cognitive journey is one that offers enterprise customers significant benefits along the way. Just as today’s Watson Analytics offerings are miles ahead tomorrow’s IBM Watson solutions will likely be ever more impressive.

IBM Security’s innovations

On a somewhat different tack, I attended a meeting with IBM Security executives, including Marc van Zadelhoff, the group’s VP of strategy, marketing and product management. If you haven’t heard much about IBM Security, you wouldn’t be alone (unless you’re one of the group’s 12,000+ enterprise customers). Despite its marketplace and technical successes, IBM Security tends to qualify as one of the industry’s “best kept secrets.”

Part of the reason for that is the sheer diversity of the security market in terms of both technologies and vendor focus. If you attend any major security industry conference, RSA for example, you’ll find the expo floor crowded with hundreds of vendors, ranging from the smallest and most obscure tool specialists to well-known general purpose players. But that’s led to massive complexity for enterprise customers who, van Zadelhoff noted, each deploy an average of 130 security tools, the vast majority of which are not and cannot be integrated.

According to van Zadelhoff, this inherent confusion leads customers toward solutions that are, at best, ineffectual, and behaviors which are, at worst, dangerous to their organizations. A fundamental problem underlying this is that the security industry as a whole appears unable to address these systemic issues. That’s led IBM to consider the subject in an entirely new way – what van Zadelhoff called, “Security as an immune system.”

The company’s first step was to consider the impact and interactions that security has with various logical domains of enterprise capabilities, such as networks, endpoints, data, and mobility, then create or work with collaborative partners to develop integrated tools to address specific issues in those domains.

The second step was to develop powerful analytics tools to pull the solutions and services together into a coherent whole. The result is a comprehensive portfolio of enterprise security solutions and cloud-based services tied together with an analytics dashboard.

So how has IBM’s immune system strategy been working? Well, the company is generally ranked as the industry’s #1 enterprise security vendor in terms of total revenues, and IBM Security enjoyed 19% YoY growth in 2014, about 3X the growth of the overall market. The company’s 6,200 security employees monitor an average 20 billion security events per day, and disseminate data and updates to the group’s enterprise clients.

In other words, pretty darned well.

Final analysis

Overall, Insight 2015 provided a host of interesting and thought provoking encounters and discussions. At a time when many in IT are concerned about changes roiling the industry and challenges facing vendors, IBM is pursuing a journey that is firmly rooted in past successes and inspired by future opportunities. The company’s cognitive computing developments and its security solutions both reflect those points. Customers that come aboard for the ride will very likely be glad they did.

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