IBM: Solving the Cloud + Analytics Equation

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  July 29, 2015

It is no surprise that cloud computing and data analytics are two of the highest value IT solutions for enterprises. The former provides the means to escape the endless “build, manage, maintain and repeat” cycles that so many IT shops are locked into. The latter offers a variety of methodologies for businesses to enhance the value and insights they gain from continuing information infrastructure investments.

The pair can also be highly complementary in combination. Cloud-based services help businesses leverage analytics applications far more easily, quickly and inexpensively than buying and deploying dedicated solutions. Some enterprise-class clouds can also allow customers to effectively and transparently compare and contrast various analytics offerings, helping to assure that they are using the most appropriate solution for specific problems.

The latter point is a particularly critical question for many businesses, but only one cloud vendor, IBM, has the experience and the means to answer it fully.

Looking at clouds from both sides

Why do we make this assertion? For a pair of important reasons. The first focuses on the requirements of enterprise IT while the second relates to the evolution of most cloud service providers (SPs).

Though many in the cloud community initially claimed that public cloud would eventually supersede traditional IT, hybrid environments that securely blend companies’ private IT assets with appropriate public cloud services are dominating discussions today. That’s mainly due to the care that enterprises take with their proprietary data and applications. In short, there are some processes and information that enterprises will never entrust to public clouds.

But practical issues also influence these points. For example, while most public cloud infrastructures tend to leverage relatively homogeneous Industry Standard systems, along with related middleware and applications, enterprise IT shops typically run a variety of scale-up and scale-out systems, numerous databases and other middleware platforms, and scores of established and customized applications. In short, replicating an enterprise infrastructure in a public cloud can be a bit like seeing your reflection in a funhouse mirror.

When it comes to SP evolution, public cloud was initially the only game in town. Major players, like Amazon, established themselves with cloud services that were usually easier and often cheaper to access than the alternatives offered by corporate IT shops. As a result, these solutions became highly popular with IT savvy clientele, including developers who leveraged public cloud for what eventually became known as “shadow IT” which existed outside management’s oversight, control and governance mandates.

“Shadow IT” aside, most public cloud platforms, including Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure, have solutions and offerings the companies say are designed to meet enterprise needs. Additionally, many Tier 1 IT vendors have developed cloud services, arguing that their deep understanding and experience with enterprise IT made them ideally suited to act as cloud SPs. Not surprisingly, most of these solutions leverage or promote vendors’ homegrown technologies, but they are often far more reflective of the realities of enterprise IT customers than many public cloud competitors.

Commitment to cloud and analytics

IBM’s push into cloud services was sparked by its acquisition of SoftLayer in early 2013, a privately-held cloud and web SP whose 21,000+ corporate clients included a large majority of global S&P 500 companies. Combining its own data centers with SoftLayer’s gave IBM over two dozen hosting facilities worldwide, a number it has steadily grown since then (there are over 40 as of this writing, with more planned for specific overseas markets). The company uses those data centers to deliver numerous public, private and hybrid cloud solutions, including infrastructure-, platform- and software-as a service (IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS).

Not surprisingly, last year IBM was ranked #1 in IDC’s first market research study of enterprise cloud vendors. The survey asked representatives from more than 400 companies with 1000+ employees to rank Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) cloud vendors according to their quality of service/availability, speed of provisioning, simplicity and overall costs. IBM garnered 35% of first place votes, placing it well ahead of competitors, including Amazon, Cisco and Google.

How about analytics? Over the past decade, IBM has invested over $25 billion in analytics and big data via acquisitions of key companies, like Cognos, SPSS, Coremetrics, Netezza, StoredIQ and Cloudant. Plus, the company has developed notable related projects, including its Watson Analytics systems and BlueMix development platform, and made continuing investments in analytics-related open source efforts, like Hadoop and Apache Spark.

Earlier this year, IBM committed $4 billion to further fund cloud, big data analytics, enterprise mobile and security development, areas whose combined revenues the company expects to grow from $25 billion in 2014 to over $40 billion by 2018. The company is also developing analytics-focused relationships with other vendors, such as the partnership with Twitter it announced in March.

Finally, IBM has optimized its homegrown Power Systems portfolio for analytics. POWER architecture supports features that make it particularly valuable for analytics (including delivering over twice the multi-thread performance and throughput of competing chip architectures), and a wide range of Power-based analytics solutions is available via IBM Cloud.

In addition, in 2013 IBM open sourced its POWER processor architecture and, with partners Google, NVIDIA and Mellanox, founded the OpenPower Foundation, a consortium of vendors focusing on developing new OpenPower-based data center solutions. To date, the Foundation has grown to over 130 active members worldwide, and the first OpenPower products are scheduled to reach market this year.

Finding new cloud/analytics synergies

So what comes next for IBM Cloud and analytics? The company is pursuing a careful blend of strategic and practical efforts. From a broad strategy perspective, IBM’s Cloud Data Services program is designed to promote its cloud services and Bluemix development solutions as an ideal platform for cloud data management. Given the traction of Bluemix – the company says that thousands of developers are registering to use the service every week – this seems like a reasonable goal.

It is also pursuing what it calls Insights as a Service offerings which aim to develop a new generation of analytics business applications based on IBM Cloud. As an example, the company’s partnership with Twitter is designed to help customers extract actionable insights from Twitter data and already has well-over 100 client engagements underway. IBM is also working alone and with longtime partners focused on vertical sectors to develop industry-specific analytics solutions and pre-packaged offerings for target areas such as the Internet of Things (IoT).

Finally, the company is dedicating considerable attention to making analytics easily accessible by “citizen” analyzers, like line-of-business employees who could benefit from analytics insights but don’t have the skills or experience of dedicated data scientists. That may seem natural enough, but it also addresses one of the key challenges that analytics currently faces – a shortage of qualified data scientists. Along with its analytics resources, the company will leverage the notable skills of the IBM Design group in this endeavor.

Final analysis

Like most major IT vendors, IBM is making significant investments in developing new cloud and analytics services and solutions. But unlike many competitors, the company has a wider, deeper pool of resources and experience it is bringing to these efforts. The proven value of IBM Cloud services among global customers in concert with the company’s sizable, continuing analytics investments mean that its combined solutions will be among the most robust, secure and enterprise-ready available in the marketplace.

That’s all to the good for existing and prospective IBM customers, but it should also enhance the value and longevity of sectors dependent on cloud and analytics. All too often, IT industry trends dwindle away as vendors throttle back or abandon early offerings for simpler efforts. IBM’s tens of billions of dollars in spending to date, along with its plans for further funding, show that the company intends to stick with cloud and analytics development. That will benefit enterprises in the short term but it should also help ensure that their investments in IBM cloud and analytics solutions will pay sizable dividends for years to come.

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