IBM Systems – Looking Back and Ahead After a Year of Change

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  December 16, 2015

For Tier 1 systems vendors, the past year has been one of the most radically disruptive and transformative periods in IT industry history. During that time, vendors and their traditional markets have been roiled by shifts sparked by public cloud providers, emerging analytics technologies and significant growth in server and storage sales among original device manufacturers (ODMs). The activities of leading Tier 1 vendors have been equally notable:

  • Dell shifted from public to private ownership, then announced a bold plan to purchase EMC in what will be the IT industry’s largest-ever acquisition.
  • HP, the volume leader in global PC sales, divided itself into separate companies focused on business/data center solutions and PCs/printers.
  • Oracle got cloud religion, increasingly focused its hardware strategy on high performance database and other appliances, and continued to see sales of general purpose servers decline.

But the company that arguably experienced the greatest number of practical and strategic changes was IBM, particularly in the company’s Systems Unit, which comprises IBM server, storage, microelectronics and middleware solutions. Last week, Tom Rosamilia, SVP of IBM’s Systems Unit, hosted an analyst call to discuss the organization’s progress during 2015 and its plans for the upcoming year.

2015: Looking back

Why was 2015 such a memorable year for IBM Systems? Consider these announcements:

  • January – The launch of its next gen z13 mainframe, optimized for supporting the mobile economy
  • February – The launch of its Spectrum Storage, a software-defined storage solution based on IBM’s XIV
  • March – The OpenPOWER Foundation introduced over ten new Power-based commercial data center solutions spanning systems, boards, cards, and a microprocessor customized for China
  • July – IBM closed a deal transferring its microprocessor production facilities to GlobalFoundries.
  • September – First, the launch of the LinuxONE, IBM’s first Linux-only mainframe solution. Then the acquisition of StrongLoop, a vendor that helps developers create APIs that connect mobile, IoT and web apps to the enterprise.
  • October – First, the acquisition of Cleversafe, a developer and manufacturer of object-based storage software and appliances. Then, its new Power Systems LC servers, a new product family optimized for Linux based cloud and cluster deployments.
  • November – API Harmony for Bluemix, a cloud-based matchmaking technology that helps developers determine which APIs best suit their applications

While impressive, this list doesn’t include numerous other individual Power, z Systems, storage and middleware product announcements. Or the efforts that the Systems Unit put into facilitating the company-wide reorganization that IBM announced in January 2015. It also fails to detail the continuing rapid growth of the OpenPOWER Foundation. Launched in August 2013 by Google, IBM, Mellanox, NVIDIA and Tyan, the group now has 170 corporate and individual members.

2016: Looking ahead

So where does IBM Systems go from here? Broadly speaking, the Systems Unit and IBM as a whole is aiming for a future invigorated and informed by continuing developments in cognitive computing. IBM’s Watson and Watson Analytics will form the “point of the spear” in this effort, and for good reason.

For one thing, Watson has been and remains relatively unique in the IT industry. Sure, numerous vendors are developing complex, business-centric analytics solutions, and commercial platforms, including Apple’s Siri, Google Voice and Microsoft Cortana to support increasingly accurate natural voice recognition. But Watson is considerably further along the evolutionary cognitive path than other technologies, and IBM intends to maintain or extend that lead by aggressively building new capabilities, developer frameworks and APIs for the Watson platform.

As SVP Rosamilia noted, cognitive development will require IBM to evolve hybrid cloud and IT infrastructure offerings in three areas;

  1. Integration for mobile services – representing the massive continuing shift to mobility technologies among businesses and consumers
  2. Data for analytics services – requiring an essential rethinking of priorities around data acquisition, location and compute
  3. Operations for service predictability – resulting in systems design, service management and availability features supporting fully secure, continuous, pervasive access to information and applications

Pursuing these goals will require IBM Systems to continue encouraging, developing and delivering innovations across its z Systems mainframe, Power Systems, Open POWER, storage and Middleware portfolios in 2016 and the years to come.

Final analysis

The larger question is whether IBM can achieve the vision of cognitive computing that SVP Tom Rosamilia laid out during last week’s briefing. To my mind, the company is in very good shape, the result of a willingness to accept and pursue an ongoing transformational effort across the company. That doesn’t mean that things are perfect or that IBM Systems doesn’t face significant challenges, particularly in stabilizing and growing sales in storage and other product areas.

However, the evolution of the Watson platform is an excellent example of what IBM Systems Unit is doing right, and is just one of several interrelated cognitive computing efforts occurring across IBM. In fact, I believe you could successfully argue that IBM regards cognitive as a 21st century equivalent of mainframe computing, in the sense of being a technology capable of ushering in and sustaining a new era of enterprise IT.

That era will find people and organizations utilizing technology to work in countless locations and situations. But it will not be achievable without robust foundational IT systems and infrastructures capable of supporting increasingly complex, globally-dispersed business interactions, collaborations and transactions. That vision reflects IBM’s current position in business computing but also extends it by an order of magnitude or more.

From what I heard in last week’s discussion of IBM Systems’ progress and priorities, the company successfully used the disruptions of 2015 to transform itself for a future that lies just ahead.

© 2015 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.