Think 2019 – IBM Opens a New Chapter in Digital Transformation

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 20, 2019

Central to all tech vendor conferences is brand reinforcement which companies hope to achieve by explaining themselves in public. The process itself varies widely from vendor to vendor, with some opting for squishiness over substance and others spouting vagaries rather than concrete points. But others use these events to clarify their current positions, explicate core strategies and detail how they intend to help the organizations they serve successfully achieve desired goals.

Good examples of this latter approach were plentiful at IBM’s second annual Think conference last week in San Francisco. Over the course of 4+ jam-packed days, the company’s senior executives and product group leaders offered a clinic on presenting (with minimal jargon) IBM’s plans and why those efforts are meaningful to its customers and partners.

Let’s consider some of Think 2019’s key happenings and what the event said about the current and future state of IBM.

Rometty opens Chapter 2

The centerpiece of most any vendor conference is the CEO’s keynote, and Think was no exception. IBM chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty held the spotlight with the help of some major league customers’ execs, underscoring the company’s recent achievements and future focus areas. The core of her presentation focused on what Rometty called Chapter 2 – a next stage of innovation in which organizations consciously move from “random acts of digital” and experimenting with emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), to true business transformation.

How is IBM facilitating Chapter 2? Initially with a pair of notable cloud offerings. The first includes a new Cloud Integration Platform and IBM Global Service offerings for hybrid cloud migrations. These were interesting but largely eclipsed by Watson Anywhere, an initiative that will enable customers to leverage IBM’s Watson AI solutions wherever their data resides. Watson Anywhere flows out of the Cloud Private for Data (ICP for Data) solutions IBM recently announced that enables customers to deploy workloads on any cloud that supports Red Hat’s OpenShift containerization technology.

Prior to this, IBM Cloud was the only public cloud supporting Watson AI workloads and projects so Watson Anywhere represents a substantial (for IBM) and beneficial (for clients) move. At the same time, the company announced enhancements to its Power Systems solutions that are likely to convince many AI-focused customers to stick with IBM hardware for AI projects. A new Machine Learning Accelerator for Power Systems runs machine learning training sessions up to 46x faster than comparably priced systems with Intel Xeon silicon. That’s an enormous plus for companies seriously exploring or pursuing AI projects, especially those hoping to deploy AI enabled business projects quickly and efficiently

The new Power offerings also underscore another Rometty nugget: that “there can’t be AI without IA (information architecture).” By freeing Watson, evolving new hybrid cloud services and increasing its leadership position in machine learning and other associated technologies, IBM is ensuring that its AI- and cloud-bound customers can have it all wherever and however they choose. That provides the subtext for the Chapter 2 innovations Rometty highlighted at Think 2019.

Group executive POVs

Think 2019 featured a program hosted by IBM’s new VP of Global Industry Analyst Relations, Harriet Fryman that included presentations and Q&A sessions with senior company executives, including those leading IBM’s key solution groups. I don’t have the space to consider them all but following are a few highlights I took away.

  • Rob Thomas, GM of IBM’s Analytics Platform, Hybrid Cloud and Beth Smith, GM of Watson AI, Hybrid Cloud focused their remarks on foundational technologies supporting the Watson Anywhere initiative. Why is the company so intently focused on cloud-enabled AI? According to Thomas, research conducted with IBM’s enterprise clients found that 85% consider AI a strategic opportunity. Importantly, their view of the technology is highly pragmatic, with three quarters seeing AI as key to increasing revenues and the remainder pursuing AI to reduce costs. Thomas was the first IBM executive to use the “No AI without IA” mantra (during a presentation at Think 2018), and he reinforced that theme by noting challenges customers continue to face, including the fact that some 80% of business data is inaccessible, untrusted or unanalyzed. Thomas also noted solutions that IBM has developed to ease AI growing pains, including TRUATA, a fully governed data lake available on IBM Cloud that features AI models for data protection, GDPR and analytics. Smith detailed key services and solutions the company offers as part of its Watson Anywhere and hybrid cloud initiatives. Those include Watson Assistant, a service that helps AI customers develop key dialog and search skills, and Business Automation Intelligence which customers can use to automate office processes, from clerical tasks to complex knowledge work. Smith also discussed IBM’s AI Learning and Certification Program, an effort that aims to increase the number and skills of workers who will focus on AI-related tasks.
  • Tom Rosamilia, SVP of IBM Systems focused his presentation on the progress the company is making with its homegrown Power Systems, IBM Z and LinuxONE mainframes and storage solutions. As background, it’s worth noting that IBM’s 2014 sale of its Intel-based server organization to Lenovo has worked out much as the company envisioned. While many vendors focusing exclusively on x86-based systems face substantial challenges, including the rise of ODM server players and goliath cloud players designing their own systems, IBM has the markets for high end (and high margin) solutions increasingly to itself. That doesn’t mean the business is free from problems, but aligning its Power, mainframe and storage offerings with customers’ core business needs offers IBM a clear way forward. Rosamilia noted that the company believes the market is at the “dawn of a new era of smarter business” that will be driven by technology infrastructures “infused with intelligence, protected with advanced security and future-proofed against the flow of new breakthroughs and risks.” IBM Systems is addressing those points with numerous solutions, including Power Systems that support holistic AI and deliver superior performance for workloads like SAP HANA, agile multi-cloud infrastructure offerings, and systems that maximally protect data wherever it resides via enterprise-class encryption and secure containers. The new Machine Learning Accelerator for Power Systems announced at Think is an example of how IBM is marrying technological leadership with tangible business value. The same can be said of the IBM Spectrum Storage Protect Plus offerings for multi-cloud environments that the company announced earlier this month. Both highlight why global enterprises, including most of the world’s biggest retailers, financial institutions, telcos, healthcare companies and auto makers continue to place their trust and IT investments with IBM Systems.
  • David McQueeney, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer wrapped up the executive session with some thoughts on the nature and importance of “innovation that matters” to customers and partners. How can a vendor and the organizations it works with tell whether new IT solutions and services are truly innovative? McQueeney offered three criteria: First, by determining “how fast you’re going.” That is, IBM can do all the innovation it wants at home but that’s meaningless unless it can successfully bring those developments to customers. Secondly, by examining “how deep you’re going.” What kinds of problems are you solving, and how does that impact customers and partners? Finally, McQueeney noted the importance of defining “the context of the innovation you’ve achieved.” What parts of businesses and competitive environments does it impact? What new things does it help a client or partner do or avoid? McQueeney’s comments on innovation were helpful in illuminating what, in other hands, is one of the tech industry’s most overused and least understood terms.

PartnerWorld 2019

IBM PartnerWorld, the company’s annual conference for its channel organization and partner ecosystem, was held the day before Think 2019 officially began. For some folks, IBM’s work with business partners is a bit of a mystery. That’s mainly because the company’s longstanding efforts in enterprise computing is seemingly at odds with conventional views of the channel which many assume focuses largely or completely on small-to-medium sized businesses (SMBs).

In contrast, IBM’s partner ecosystem can be divided into two general groups; 1) enterprise partners (sometimes called “core” partners) that are closely aligned with IBM and work with the company’s enterprise clients, and 2) commercial partners who focus on working with small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The definitions aren’t always clear cut. Some enterprise partners work with just one or two large customers. Some commercial partners limit their efforts to specific industries, markets or geographic regions.

Like most vendors’ channel efforts, IBM’s partner ecosystem once included significant numbers of conventional resellers and value-added resellers (VARs). But the number of those engagements has dropped significantly as those markets evolved with the rise of public cloud and SaaS solutions.

During the past year or so, IBM has helped its business partners transform themselves and remain competitive through Specialist and Expert Competencies training programs. Many are actively adopting strategies around third-party marketplaces, embedded solutions and software-as-a-service offerings. The company also reports momentum among partners in the ecosystem that are building skills and solutions around strategic IBM technologies, including security, cloud, IoT and Watson AI.

At PartnerWorld 2019, IBM announced a slew of new incentives, skills programs and exclusive security and hybrid multi-cloud offerings. Those include “In It to Win It” incentives for IBM Power Systems, IBM LinuxONE and Z solutions, a Watson AI-enabled IBM Business Partner Connect partner collaboration platform, the Seismic@IBM sales enablement program and a Managed Services Security Provider program (MSSP) designed to help business partners build security practices and deliver commercial solutions.

If Think 2019 focused on the bright future sees ahead for itself and its customers, PartnerWorld 2019 demonstrated how the company is ensuring that that its business partners will join in the digital transformation journey.

Final analysis

Did Think 2019 succeed at introducing and explaining the innovations so central to IBM’s plans for next stage, Chapter 2 business computing? Yes, both practically and strategically.

CEO Ginni Rometty, with the help of able IBM executives, satisfied customers and supportive business partners to hit the high notes on how IBM is helping clients greet the dawn of a new era of smarter business. That includes developing AI, hybrid multi-cloud and Watson Anywhere solutions and services that organizations can use to move beyond experimentation and into enhancing competitive capabilities and minimizing costs.

The longer-term strategic points were a bit more sublime. Certainly, IBM’s efforts in emerging technologies, including its stunning Project Debater event and developments in quantum computing warrant attention. But the larger point is that having concluded Chapter 1 and readying for Chapter 2, IBM can begin breaking ground on Chapter 3 and looking ahead to further events and adventures.

Though every journey begins with a single step, it is important to acknowledge the value that a trusted, experienced guide can add to the tens and hundreds and thousands of steps to come. Think 2019 clearly proved IBM’s worth in past years’ efforts and also showed how the company is preparing customers and partners for the journey ahead.

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