Pund-IT Spotlight Interview: Stephen Leonard, GM of IBM’s Cognitive Systems

By Charles King, Pund-IT®  February 26, 2020

There is no single path that business executives travel. The best managers have significant talent that is then honed to a fine edge by training, experience and a willingness to take up new challenges. Employers contribute hugely to the process, of course, and it is difficult to think of a company that does a better job of recognizing, training and advancing new leaders than IBM.

I recently had a chance to interview Stephen Leonard, General Manager of IBM’s Cognitive Systems where he is responsible for the development, sales and marketing of the company’s Power Systems solutions, as well as offerings for cloud computing platforms and data centers. Our discussion covered a wide range of issues and events that have colored Leonard’s 30+ years with IBM.

Pund-IT: How did you first become interested in computing and working in the IT industry?

Stephen Leonard: I was born and raised in Scotland. My interest in technology started early with maths, which eventually led me to computers. I hold a BSC degree in applied physics and electronics from Dundee University, graduating in 1989.

Pund-IT: How did your career at IBM begin?

Leonard: I started with the company in 1990 as a technical instructor in London. Over time, I progressed into global, regional, and country leadership roles, overseeing business divestitures, acquisition integration and turn-around business growth efforts.

Pund-IT: When did you become involved in IBM’s Power Systems organization?

Leonard: In 2006, I was named VP of worldwide sales for Power Systems and held that role for nearly three years before becoming VP of IBM sales in North America. In 2010, I returned to the UK as chief executive of IBM United Kingdom and Ireland, where I was responsible for all facets of the company’s business, including strategy, sales and technology development. I also served as chairman of IBM United Kingdom and Ireland.

Pund-IT: Sounds like a lot of moving around. How did you come to your current role in the Power Systems organization?

Leonard: In 2013, I was named GM of Global Markets for IBM’s Systems and Technology Group. Then in 2016, I became GM of IBM North America where I oversaw sales of hardware, software and consultative services and operations P&L (profit and loss) which constitute 40% of the company’s global revenues. During that time, I also implemented the restructuring of our go-to-market strategy around agile systems that address clients’ data-driven IT requirements. In April 2019, I was named GM of IBM’s Cognitive Systems Division where I am responsible for the development, sales and marketing of the company’s multi-billion-dollar Power Systems franchise, as well as related offerings for cloud computing and on premises data centers.

Pund-IT: Your 30+ years at IBM has spanned numerous remarkable changes, from the company’s crucial support for Linux/open source in the 1990s to IBM Watson’s debut on Jeopardy! to the rise of enterprise hybrid cloud and AI. How have these individual efforts contributed to IBM’s overall evolution?

Leonard: IBM has always been focused on how technology can provide and advance solutions for major industry and business challenges. Much of that is grounded in the drive to make the art of the possible real. The focus on Linux and open source ties to the belief that harnessing the creativity and expertise of a wide community of resources is the fastest way to drive to new capabilities vs. a serialized approach of iteration by a smaller team.

Pund-IT: So “it takes a village” can apply to technology, too.

Leonard: Our focus on and contributions to open source communities is linked to how they can solve real world business problems. As an example, for AI, the Power Systems team took open source libraries and frameworks and improved their usability while also creating enterprise-ready technologies. That enabled our clients to incorporate AI in their day-to-day operational models.

Pund-IT: Impressive. How does that approach apply to other business technologies?

Leonard: IBM also embraced open source capabilities to build out hybrid cloud solutions aligned with clients’ deployment preferences. We focused on bringing together multiple separate clouds into integrated hybrid cloud environments.

Pund-IT: That resonates with the company’s efforts to maximize the value of traditional solutions while pushing into emerging opportunities.

Leonard: IBM’s strategy is fully grounded in leveraging the industry and technical expertise we have built through the years, plus our R&D insights, to create groundbreaking new capabilities.

Pund-IT: During your career, IBM’s Power Systems and the POWER architecture have gone through considerable changes. Can you discuss events that you consider to be high points in the history of IBM POWER and Power Systems?

Leonard: The first POWER processor was launched in 1990 in IBM’s RS/6000 workstation and commercial systems. In 1997, the Power-based Deep Blue system defeated then world chess champion Garry Kasparov, an amazing feat. In 2001, IBM shipped POWER4, the first GHz frequency CPU, which also incorporated multi-core capability. POWER4 was a game changer for the industry and IBM, leading the company to the #1 position in the Unix market just a few years later. In 2004, IBM POWER5 implemented the first simultaneous multithreading capability.

Pund-IT: I remember those times well. IBM moved rapidly from third position to first, blowing past both HP’s and Sun Microsystems’ Unix solutions, an event that many considered unlikely in the extreme. The company followed that success by adding even more technical innovations to its Power portfolio.

Leonard: Another moment that was analogous to the Deep Blue/Kasparov chess games came in 2011, when IBM’s POWER7-based Watson system defeated legendary Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

Pund-IT: Those Jeopardy! matches fundamentally changed the way most people thought about the capabilities of computing.

Leonard: IBM Watson created a new industry milestone in artificial intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing. Fast forward to POWER8 in 2014, which delivered 2X performance, 2X per core performance vs. x86, and CAPI bus to attach accelerators coherently. It was also capable of running Big-Endian for AIX and IBM i, and Little-Endian for industry compatible Linux. That enabled IBM Power solutions to fully extend beyond AIX and IBM i to industry compatible Linux environments. Linux on Power targeted workloads including SAP HANA and other data-centric workloads.

Pund-IT: POWER8 also marked a clear shift in IBM’s development of commercial solutions and services for AI, machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL).

Leonard: POWER8 was later enhanced to POWER8 with NVLink, which delivered highly differentiated AI/ML/DL Training systems. Then in 2017 came the most recent, POWER9, generation of Power Systems which delivered 2X memory bandwidth and capacity, 2X per core performance, and NVLink 2.0 with 10X bandwidth vs. Intel’s x86 architecture. Along with delivering tremendous benefits for AIX/IBM i and SAP HANA customers, POWER9 plays an essential role in the world’s top two supercomputers: the Summit and Sierra systems deployed at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) labs.

Pund-IT: Since ascending to market leadership during the heyday of scale-up systems, IBM Power is one of just two RISC-based technologies still standing (Oracle SPARC is the other). What do you believe Power offers that is unique? What are the central value propositions of IBM Power Systems that customers find so compelling?

Leonard: IBM POWER offers scale, resiliency, and flexibility (through PowerVM) to AIX/IBM i and Enterprise Linux (SAP HANA, SAS), along with enterprise AI capabilities. Those capabilities are critical for customers embracing hybrid cloud and modernizing their IT infrastructure and applications. The value of IBM Power Systems is further anchored by Red Hat Open Shift, IBM’s Cloud Paks, and Ansible automation. IBM is collaborating extensively with industry partners to deliver greater POWER-based innovations to customers. We are not only positioned far better than Oracle SPARC, but also positioned well vs. solutions leveraging x86 architectures.

Pund-IT: Do you believe organizations harbor any misconceptions about IBM’s POWER technologies and Power Systems?

Leonard: Customers perceive POWER to be high performance and highly reliable, but also proprietary and somewhat pricey. However, when clients fully evaluate POWER’s scaling, resiliency and flexibility value proposition, they find Power Systems are able to deliver cost-effective value. Furthermore, thanks to OpenPOWER and OpenISA initiatives, POWER is an entirely open architecture, allowing industry partners to contribute to innovation.

Pund-IT: Do the markets and demand for Power solutions differ significantly in various geographies or industries?

Leonard: Demand for IBM Power Systems is balanced, with the financial services, distribution, and public sector industries showing the greatest relevancy. More recently, the addition of new capabilities around SAP HANA and AI have led to an uptick in demand in the communications, industrial, and healthcare industries sectors, as well as in oil and gas exploration. Geographically speaking, we continue to experience significant demand across all major markets (NA, EU, and Japan), and an increase in participation in growth markets (AP, LA, and MEA).

Pund-IT: Are any existing or emerging use cases particularly dynamic for Power Systems?

Leonard: In our SAP segment, we achieved a relevant market share with five straight years of growth, regaining leadership after the divestiture of the IBM X-Series portfolio to Lenovo. Another growth area is around AI-enabled projects like cognitive airports, cancer detection, risk and fraud management, and quality inspection. Further, IBM’s Power Systems are uniquely positioned to enable clients’ hybrid cloud strategies for mission critical AIX, IBM i, and Enterprise Linux workloads in the form of systems with leading performance, scale, resiliency and security to create agile and efficient on premises and public cloud infrastructure with simplified and automated operations.

Pund-IT: There’s been something of a rhetorical shift in IBM’s positioning of Power. What exactly are Cognitive Systems, and how are they similar to or different from traditional solutions?

Leonard: Cognitive Systems in particular refers to systems that address enterprise-class AI workloads. Power Systems today are designed for Enterprise hybrid, multi-cloud IT infrastructure and application modernization integrating AIX, IBM i, and Enterprise Linux workloads with Linux Kubernetes containers and AI technology. Additionally, they deliver simplified and automated IT operations for efficiency and agility.

Pund-IT: IBM Power Virtual Servers are now available on IBM Cloud. Could you talk a bit about why this is important for the company and its customers? How are businesses utilizing these solutions? What new Power-based features and services can we expect to see from IBM Cloud?

Leonard: As customers move to cloud for mission-critical workloads and modernizing IT infrastructures and applications, hybrid cloud capabilities across on-prem and public cloud are becoming extremely important. Power Virtual Server offerings on IBM Cloud encompass AIX, IBM i, and Linux on Power. Customers running those operating environments on-premises can now incorporate hybrid public cloud capacity for some of their development, pre-production, production and disaster recovery use cases. Power Virtual Server offerings in IBM Cloud enables integration with advanced cloud services for business innovation.

Pund-IT: IBM caused quite a stir in 2013 when it formed the OpenPOWER Foundation with Google, NVIDIA and other vendors. Can you discuss the organization’s current state and what we can expect from it?

Leonard: The OpenPOWER Foundation has grown from five members to a vibrant community of more than 350 members spanning 35 countries. The Technical Steering Committee now has 12 workgroups driving innovation in important areas such as acceleration.

Pund-IT: Didn’t some of the work IBM and other OpenPOWER members contribute to the company’s supercomputing leadership?

Leonard: IBM, NVIDIA, Mellanox, and about a dozen other OpenPOWER members drove key advancements in the field of accelerated computing systems architecture. These systems are now providing scientists and researchers the opportunity to solve complex problems in the fields of energy, artificial intelligence, human health, weather, and other important research areas.

Pund-IT: How have IBM’s efforts contributed to OpenPOWER?

Leonard: IBM continues to drive open innovation. Since 2013, the focus of the Foundation has been to enable open system innovation, leading to 150+ OpenPOWER-ready certified products developed by more than over 20 systems manufacturers who have also delivered hundreds of other innovations.

Pund-IT: What about recent developments?

Leonard: In August 2019, IBM extended the scope of OpenPOWER by contributing the POWER Instruction Set Architecture (ISA), along with rights to create, distribute, license, and sell POWER ISA Cores, inclusive of patent rights to the group. Part of this announcement also included additional IBM contributions to the open community such as Open Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (OpenCAPI) and Open Memory Interface (OMI) designs, which enable much-needed acceleration and memory innovation agnostic to the CPU architecture. The aim of these moves is to enable and encompass additional hardware architecture innovations.

Pund-IT: I also understand IBM approves of the Foundation’s decision to join The Linux Foundation (which also was announced in August 2019).

Leonard: IBM has been a big supporter of OpenPOWER’s move to The Linux Foundation. We see this as the ideal community to nurture and support the open governance model established within the OpenPOWER Foundation.

Pund-IT: You’ve worked with three very different IBM CEOs: Lou Gerstner, Sam Palmisano and Ginni Rometty. Plus, I expect you’re well-acquainted with Arvind Krishna who was recently appointed to become IBM’s next CEO. Can you offer some thoughts on each one’s leadership qualities and how their strategic vision contributed to the evolution and success of Power Systems and technologies?

Leonard: Clearly these three leaders had key skills needed at their time in IBM’s evolution. Lou Gerstner came in when we had very significant challenges as a company, and reset the whole business and strategy, focusing on re-integrating the company, cutting unnecessary overhead and resetting the mainframe business. When Sam Palmisano took over, his focus was on building out our portfolio, most significantly related to business services, and on creating a very visible commitment to growing our business. Ginni Rometty’s mission has been to remix the portfolio to a combination of higher value/profit businesses along with key bets on new growth areas, such as AI and cloud. Regarding the appointment of Arvind Krishna as IBM’s next CEO, Arvind is deeply technical, highly operational/execution oriented and an expert in cloud, which makes him a perfect candidate for the next phase of our transformation. I look forward to seeing him shape this new role to his style and objectives for IBM.

Pund-IT: Given their central roles in IBM, you could argue Power Systems and the POWER architecture act as bellwethers for the larger company.

Leonard: In line with IBM’s evolving strategy, Power has adjusted our business focus in a number of ways. We evolved from a hardware-centric view to one of full stack solutions aligned with our platform’s value proposition. We have moved from technology grounded business decisions to a balance of marketplace, competitive, and technology insights being applied to what we bring to market. And, we have aligned more with IBM’s overall cloud strategy and continue to focus on our Enterprise client set and their needs by extending AIX, IBM i, and Linux on Power environments with new capabilities, transforming our SAP focus to embrace HANA, and enabling cloud deployments for all workloads.

Pund-IT: Thank you, Stephen, for this insightful discussion about IBM POWER and Power Systems.

Leonard: You’re welcome, Charles. Thank you.

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