IBM InterConnect 2016: Mobilizing the Cloud

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  March 2, 2016

Generalizing too randomly on the subject of IT business conferences is a mistake. There are virtually as many different kinds as there are vendors, and the experience of attendees varies widely from one to another. But it’s reasonable to say that hosting companies mostly use these events to cast a positive, often respectful light on themselves and their broader strategies.

In other words, vendors use conferences to build context—establishing narrative that makes sense of their activities, plans and goals—and consensus among customers and partners. That’s a more important process in some instances than others, particularly among vendors in the process of making over themselves and/or their businesses. IBM’s recent InterConnect 2016 in Las Vegas is a great example of how this process can work to the benefit of everyone concerned.

Cloud comfort

IBM called InterConnect 2016 the “premiere cloud and mobile summit” but the squishiness of that phrase firms up if you know the event’s history. IBM originally launched InterConnect last year as a combination of three previous annual conferences focusing on specific company product groups: Impact (Tivoli systems management solutions), Innovate (Rational developer tools) and Pulse (WebSphere middleware for application/mobile development and business process management).

These all have been and remain important elements in IBM’s cloud and mobility efforts and strategies, but they also cast light on the software-inspired reorganization the company implemented last year. IBM continues to sell billions of dollars in system/storage hardware (more on that later) but software has led the company’s way in terms of product differentiation and value for over a decade. The reorganization effort aligned IBM’s software assets across half a dozen broad strategic business groups.

Software was clearly on the minds of the 25,000 or so InterConnect 2016 attendees (up substantially from 2015’s crowd of 20,000) who were there to see main tent presentations by senior executives and participate in hundreds of technical and strategic sessions. While I didn’t go to many of those meetings, I found one factoid particularly interesting – that IBM customers and partners led well over half of them. Meaning that attendees looking for help/advice could talk with people with direct, deep experience.

That’s notably different than many conferences I attend, and is especially important for vendors embarking on or continuing efforts in still-developing technologies, including cloud and mobile application development. In other words, IBM wasn’t just talking cloud and mobile in lofty terms; it was providing practical guidance that attendees can and likely will use day to day. That certainly strengthened IBM’s brand, but it also helped attendees quantify the value of InterConnect 2016 to themselves and their employers.

Cloud, mobility & developers

Not surprisingly, cloud and mobility issues were center stage at InterConnect from the start, with Robert LeBlanc, SVP of IBM Cloud, underscoring the company’s primary belief that cloud is a natural and necessary step for businesses hoping to pursue and capture IT innovation. There’s a lot to be said on that subject, and LeBlanc, other IBM executives and a formidable line-up of company customers and partners systematically laid out the case supporting it.

The result was what might be called a clinic in connecting the dots between technological innovation and business value, a subject you’d think most companies have committed to memory. But the fact is that when innovative new technologies or innovative ways of employing existing technologies arise, how businesses think about IT requires revision. Sometimes that can occur directly, as in IBM main tent executive presentations, but it also occurs in new partner, customer and product announcements.

Topping the list at InterConnect 2016 was a new partnership with VMware which came as something of a surprise given IBM’s sale of its System x Intel-based server group to Lenovo some time back. But the fact is that IBM was the first Tier 1 vendor to support VMware back in the 1990s. Plus, since the pair supports thousands of mutual customers, fully delivering on the true promise of the cloud requires high degrees of cooperation and collaboration. From the looks of things in Las Vegas, the two companies are ready to deliver that and more.

Other interesting announcements included cloud customer wins with Bitly and Siemens, and a new deal to offer GitHub’s enterprise-as-a-service through IBM Cloud. The company also debuted new solutions, such as Bluemix OpenWhisk (an event-driven app development platform), updated APIs that enhance IBM Watson’s emotional and visual senses, extending IBM’s WebSphere portfolio to the cloud and a preview of new IBM Cloud services leveraging Swift, the programming language that Apple open sourced a couple of months ago.

Apple also played a significant role in the opening keynote at InterConnect with Brian Croll, the company’s senior director of software marketing, taking the stage with Robert LeBlanc to discuss the IBM Cloud/Swift news. At one point, Croll noted, “Developer tools are the silent heroes of the explosion in apps.” While certainly correct, the roar of approval from the InterConnect crowd demonstrated how well IBM and Apple know their audience. Clearly stated or not, developer issues were top of mind throughout the conference.

Individual meetings

As is usual at partner/customer conferences like InterConnect, I had 1:1 meetings scheduled with executives, with subject matter focusing on use cases for IBM’s z System mainframe-as-a-cloud-service platform and the significant progress to date of the OpenPower Foundation (which promotes IBM’s open source POWER processor designs and architecture). Since some of the issues discussed were under NDA, I can’t go into detail on what transpired. But suffice it to say that both subjects bear watching and further discussion, which I plan to do in the coming weeks/months.

There were two other encounters that are worth touching on. The first was during a “walk-around dinner event” for analysts that featured product and technology demos. I was particularly struck by WorkRight, a project developed at IBM Research’s Haifa Lab and presented by Nir Mashkif. In essence, Mashkif and his team were looking at ways to reduce or prevent workplace injuries which are highly costly to employees, their employers and society at large.

Using a variety of wearable and close proximity sensors, along with IBM Bluemix, Mobile First Platform Infrastructure and analytics, the team created a solution that can be used to track workers’ locations and their responses to environmental stress factors (like temperature, noise and vibration), and alert safety personnel if a fall, injury or other incident requiring assistance is detected.

Very cool stuff, especially for industrial settings and cases such as first responders subjected to high levels of stress or danger. WorkRight is also being adapted for healthcare use cases, including monitoring the well-being of the elderly and other at-risk patients.

During another analyst meal event, I enjoyed meeting Jonathan Jackson of Dimagi, a for-profit social enterprise whose CommCare application development platform is used for supporting healthcare services in over 50 countries. End users collect and store patient and other information on smart phones which, when they connect to a cellular network, automatically synchronize stored data to the Dimagi cloud.

The company initially chose Apache CouchDB as a NoSQL data layer to serve as a data repository but while CouchDB met many technical requirements, it could not scale easily to support new business growth. After extensive study, Dimagi selected IBM’s Cloudant Dedicated Cluster as a database-as-a-service. Since it uses the standard CouchDB HTTP API, it was easily incorporated with Dimagi’s existing software stack. It also provided an immediate, massive performance boost without any extra effort or investment by the company.

In essence, Dimagi’s experience with IBM’s Cloudant Dedicated Cluster demonstrates both the essential value cloud-based solutions offer to emerging business models and the critical role cloud can play in supporting and delivering mobile applications and services worldwide.

Final analysis

As I noted early on, successful customer and partner conferences provide context for the strategic initiatives and tactical solutions under discussion. In that sense, InterConnect 2016 was an unqualified success.

Not only did IBM introduce significant new and updated solutions, but the company also leveraged the testimonials and skills of partners of every kind. These included heavy hitters like Apple, but they also allowed customers first-person contact with experienced individuals during hundreds of live sessions. By doing so, IBM was able to emphasize the wisdom of the reorganization initiated last year while highlighting the considerable progress it has made since then.

This isn’t to say that life is entirely serene for the company. Areas like cloud, mobile and cognitive computing are still in early stages in terms of market and revenue opportunity. Plus, IBM, like other traditional systems vendors, faces significant challenges in continuing to support its full range of enterprise solutions and services while sustaining and increasing the momentum around its new offerings.

But Interconnect 2016 revealed a company respectful of its past achievements while also excited by future opportunities. IBM’s vision of cloud and mobile innovation seems big enough to encompass new and existing customers and partners. The critical developers and other constituencies the company focused on communicating with at Interconnect 2016 appeared to have the energy and enthusiasm required to help carry that vision forward.

© 2016 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.