Interconnect 2017: Enhancing and Extending IBM Cloud with Watson Cognitive

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  March 29, 2017

Over time, IT vendors’ customer and partner conferences develop a personality all their own. But in the case of IBM Interconnect, which the company describes as its “premiere cloud conference,” it helps to understand the event’s prior history. Up until 2015, three individual longstanding conferences covered the subject matter and strategic areas that Interconnect alone encompasses today:

  1. IBM Pulse highlighted the company’s Tivoli system and IT infrastructure management solutions
  2. IBM Impact underscored its WebSphere web applications middleware and service delivery technologies, and
  3. IBM Innovate focused on the company’s Rational developer tools and related technologies.

What do these technologies have to do with IBM Cloud? The trio represent the core IT underpinnings that support virtually any and every cloud platform. Ignore any of them and your cloud loses altitude and risks crashing to earth. Lose any of them and your cloud services fizzle, shimmer and evaporate.

The venerability of the IBM portfolio behind Interconnect (Tivoli and WebSphere have been central to IBM since the 1990s) points to a plain truth about cloud—that in many or most cases, cloud computing simply puts a new shine on systems provisioning and data center management technologies that are as familiar to enterprise IT as a favorite pair of shoes.

So if “cloud” is as much a rhetorical construct as it is a valid IT management approach, what can vendors offer that is essentially new? Most times, not much. But in IBM’s case, as was clearly apparent at Interconnect 2017, the company’s Watson cognitive platform supports robust, replicable services and features in use by company customers that sets IBM Cloud apart from its peers. Let’s consider that more closely.

Watson at Interconnect

What kind of Watson-based features and services for IBM Cloud am I talking about? Consider these four that were announced at Interconnect:

  • As part of a new Hybrid Cloud Integration portfolio designed to ease cloud management processes, the IBM Cloud Automation Manager will leverage Watson as a “learned advisor” to make informed decisions and manage multi-cloud automated provisioning, orchestration and governance
  • Watson Discovery, a service that focuses on using Watson’s cognitive capabilities to simplify data analysis and discovery processes, has a new experimental Watson Company Profiler offering designed to help enterprises find insights buried in massive amounts of data
  • IBM Secure Virtualization, a new service designed to automate reporting processes for organizations in heavily regulated industries, utilizes Watson for Cybersecurity which deploys an immune system-like approach to discovering, managing and remediating threats across the entire enterprise
  • IBM’s MaaS360 unified endpoint management (UEM) platform for managing and protecting networks of smart phones, tablets, notebooks, IoT devices and other endpoints will offer a new MaaS360 Advisor service that leverages Watson to correlate data on active threats, such as zero day vulnerabilities and malware, use machine learning analyze devices on the network, then make recommendations to better manage and protect them.

All in all, while IBM cloud was understandably front and center at Interconnect 2017, the Watson cognitive platform was a foundational element in many of the most unique cloud features and capabilities highlighted during the conference. As such, it seems certain that Watson will continue to be a prime differentiator between IBM’s cloud services and solutions and competitors’ offerings.

Security and hybrid cloud

Like the rest of the 125+ industry analysts attending Interconnect 2017, I enjoyed a variety of keynote speeches, partner panels, product updates and client sessions, but I found two sessions with IBM executives particularly engaging.

The first was with Denis Kennelly, a former IBM Security VP who was recently named GM of IBM Hybrid Cloud Offerings. Kennelly is deeply experienced in enterprise security issues and noted that organizations planning cloud migrations don’t often consider the discrete ways those deployments will impact the security of their data, applications and operations.

For example, private clouds are typically secured with the same tools and applications organizations use in the rest of their IT infrastructure, even though those technologies might not be ideal for cloud processes and workloads. Businesses engaging with public cloud often fail to consider that by doing so they are essentially outsourcing security processes and responsibilities that can vary significantly from provider to provider.

Finally, hybrid cloud entails complex integration efforts, any of which might stress, bend or even break security strategies or compliance requirements. How can IBM Watson help to address these issues? Kennelly noted that Watson Analytics is valuable for successfully detecting a range of anomalies, a capability that includes successfully reducing false positives and alerts. That can help increase the efficiency of security administrators and free up time for them to work on more pressing matters.

Watson also plays a central role in IBM’s “immune system” approach to security. In those scenarios, Watson analytics can be used to correlate data from customers and relevant external information sources, such as the global threat data generated by IBM’s X-Force Threat Intelligence Research, and proactively respond to threats and attacks when they first appear.

A central problem, Kennelly noted, is that huge and continually expanding threat surfaces are rapidly growing beyond the abilities of a deeply fragmented security industry. The issue organizations need to focus on isn’t the attack itself—in the current climate, attacks are inevitable. The larger point is in how organizations prepare to meet those attacks, and how they respond after attacks occur.

Disruption is inevitable

My second meeting was with Laurence Guihard-Joly, GM of the Resiliency Services group in IBM’s Global Technical Services (GTS) organization, and Chandra Pulamarasetti, Co-Founder & CEO, Sanovi Technologies which IBM acquired in October 2016. Pulamarasetti is now VP of the Cloud Resiliency Orchestration Software & Services within IBM GTS Resiliency Services .

If you’re unfamiliar with the term or concept, IBM says its resiliency service group “delivers business continuity and disaster recovery management (DRM) services that support your business across all environments —including public cloud, private cloud and on-premise traditional data center environments.” That may seem a bit arcane but it is deadly serious for the 4,000+ professionals in IBM’s Resiliency Services group and the tens of thousands of companies that depend on them to help keep their businesses in an “always on environment.” .

How serious? Consider that in the weeks leading up to IBM Interconnect, two of the biggest news stories concerning cloud computing focused on major service outages at AWS and Microsoft Azure. In the case of AWS, the company’s S3 services in its Northern Virginia data center were down for five hours, during which time a majority of websites that rely on AWS S3 services from that facility hung or stalled. The eight-hour Azure outage was less severe—some compared it to a “brown-out” rather than the AWS “black-out” but many customers still suffered poor service quality.

IBM’s Resiliency Services group focuses on preventing or reducing the impact of those and other kinds of events in customers’ data centers. The size of the group indicates the importance of the task. Why so important? As Guihard-Joly noted in our discussion, “A decade ago only about ten percent of business applications were considered mission critical. Today, interdependencies between applications have substantially increased potential problems and the impacts resulting from natural and man-made disruptions.”

The acquisition of Sanovi Technologies promises to make IBM Resiliency Services’ work considerably easier. Pulamarasetti explained that Sanovi software runs on top of customers’ platforms where it can be used in a variety of hybrid cloud recovery, cloud migration and business continuity scenarios. With the addition of IBM analytics capabilities, Sanovi gathers and analyzes performance data, develops deep insights and orchestrates control/response efforts.

Over time, IBM envisions leveraging Watson Analytics to expand Sanovi’s DRM capabilities, thus enabling customers to embrace proactive resiliency programs that help anticipate potential failures before they occur. My conclusion here paralleled my discussion about IBM Security: Since disruptions are inevitable, the critical point lies in how organizations prepare to survive those disruptions, and how they respond after disruptions occur.

Final analysis

This is all great stuff but how realistic is IBM’s view of and its hopes for effectively competing in the cloud computing market? At one level, it’s unlikely that the company’s cloud business will ever become as big or well-known as AWS and Azure but it’s also clear that IBM isn’t especially interested in that issue.

During Interconnect, the company’s messaging sharply focused on global enterprise needs, not surprising given IBM’s experience with and position within those businesses. In addition, market research suggests that the attention the company lavished on hybrid, multi-cloud environments is squarely aligned with its enterprise customers’ strategic interests and commercial intentions.

In other words, enterprise-class is and long has been in IBM’s DNA. That’s a good place to be when major competitors are trying (not always believably) to bolster their own enterprise class credentials.

As is the case with most IBM conferences, a great deal of attention at Interconnect 2017 was lavished on new and emerging technologies and services. However, as was the case during the World of Watson conference last October, IBM marshalled an impressive number and array of customers and partners who testified to the value they are deriving from the company’s solutions.

IBM CEO Ginni Rommetty’s keynote address included a parade of heavyweight executives, like Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T, Bill Cobb, president and CEO of H&R Block, and Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce. All spoke at length about their experience with IBM Cloud and Watson, and all emphasized the practical and strategic benefits they are deriving from IBM’s innovations.

At one point, Rometty looked out over the Interconnect crowd and said, “In my mind, you will become cognitive.” That statement was full of future promise but as AT&T, H&R Block and Salesforce attested, some people and some organizations are doing their best to pursue and achieve that future today.

© 2017 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.