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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

INTERCONNECT 2017 – IBM Cloud Watson & Blockchain on the rise in enterprises, large and small!

By Rich Ptak


IBM, again, delivered more than promised in Interconnect 2017. Attendance was up by at least 10% with more significant product, partnership and initiative announcements covered by the largest attendance of press and analysts to date.

There were plenty of testimonials and presentations by clients, customers and IBM employees. IBM went all out to make the registration and attendance planning process easier. They even provided a Watson-leveraging app to aid attendees to do everything from connecting with fellow attendees to recommending sessions to creating a personal agenda with reminders of sessions to attend.

IBM further added to the event’s cachet by having Ginni Rometty, IBM Chairman, President and CEO host Tuesday’s keynote session. She arrived from China after completing a contract[1] (on Sunday) that partners IBM and a Dalian Wanda Group subsidiary to make select IBM cloud infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service (IaaS and PaaS) technologies available in China.

Chairman’s Address

Ginni provided a fast-paced overview of IBM’s strategy and plans. There was heavy focus on the technologies where IBM is breaking new ground or pushing its own limits on what can be done. She featured five (5) enterprise executives. Each of which spoke to their own successful experiences with using IBM Watson, Cloud and other technologies, products and services.

The executives included Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO of AT&T, describing how on-going association with IBM helps to improve customer services as data consumption in mobile media explodes. Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce, spoke to how IBM as a trusted partner and leveraging Watson, cognitive computing and predictive analytics allows them to create new customer-focused services. Bill Cobb, President and CEO of H&R Block, described how a June, 2016 discussion with IBM Senior Vice President Mike Rhodin about Watson technology, allowed them 8-months later to advertise the availability of Watson-based tax consultancy services in a Super Bowl ad.  Bruce Ross, Group Head, Technology & Operations, Royal Bank of Canada spoke to how IBM enables transformation in development and operations in their efforts to economically address a market of one. Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code discussed the impact of IBM’s support on her goal to teach 1 million girls to coding by 2020.

It is clear that Cloud-based efforts are focused on delivering enterprise-ready solutions and services. A traditional IBM sweet spot. Ginni described how a strategy based on technological prowess, acquisition of partners able to deliver cutting edge solutions and management of an expanding ecosystem leads to differentiated enterprise Cloud services solutions. It is not an aspirational strategy. It is a well-planned, managed and documented pathway intended to drive client and customer successes. Interconnect was to demonstrate both the strength of the technological foundation, and its success.

Others may try, but IBM intends to lead the market with their ability to identify and meet the specific needs of the enterprise/organization. They aim to dominate whether it is in assisting transformation efforts, planning adoption of the latest in Cloud technology and services, implementing a private Cloud or outsourcing some/all Cloud functions.

Ginni’s speech and IBM’s litany of offerings hits it all…standalone Cloud, on-premise Cloud, hosted Cloud, off-premise Cloud or Cloud services, private Cloud, hybrid Cloud, DYI Cloud, Bluemix Cloud – IBM has plans, presence, expertise and offerings in every one.

AND, they back these up with an unparalleled infrastructure and architecture that is able to deliver the security, technology, reliability, expertise, solutions and services that exceed anything offered elsewhere, or are uniquely available from IBM.

IBM has clearly learned from its early experiences with WATSON, and applied those lessons as they work to insert boundary pushing technologies, such as blockchain, cognitive, packaged WATSON, even quantum computing into their customer base. Far from going it alone, IBM is partnering and aligning itself with clients, customers, competitors, industry and academics to build an ecosystem for each of these technologies. IBM is all about implementng this strategy as if IBM's future depends upon it - we think it does. Here's more on why we think so. 

Expanding solutions and infrastructure access 

Reflecting IBM’s view of its customers’ concerns focus, the show floor had five zones Cloud, Cognitive, Watson, Internet of Things (IoT), Industry and Dev Zone. IBM executives and staff presented details of new functionality available stand-alone, as part of or baked into Cloud services. These include enhancements in performance, operations and management of infrastructure platforms (Power, OpenPOWER, z Systems, LinuxONE, storage and networking). Also showcased were a wide-range of the application and marriage of the capabilities of Watson processing with cognitive operations and blockchain services.

There were also numerous new services discussed. One example is the very-high-speed, protected, secure blockchain-as-a-service. This is now available for use by enterprises who don’t require or don’t want the undertake the effort required to do a private implementation. IBM’s Blockchain for Hyperledger Fabric v1.0 (scalable to 10K transactions/second). This is based on the just released Hyperledger consortium’s Fabric platform, but extended with IBM infrastructure performance benefits. This benefits not just very large enterprises, but also smaller, grass-roots organizations, such as Plastic Bank as we discuss a little later.

IBM positions itself as especially able to deliver products, solutions and service with designed-in features specifically intended to address the most pressing existing and emerging challenges facing enterprises today. This includes security, verification, transaction handling, speeds and volumes, certification reliability, processing power, data processing and storage, plus much more.

One example is IBM’s approach to improving the already famous security of mainframe systems. Two long-held design tenants in security systems hold that most successful penetrations are internal and no system is impenetrable. IBM’s latest cyber security offerings combines Watson and cognitive computing to analyze events across the operating environment to more rapidly identify, even anticipate, attempts at penetration.

A major part of any such event as Interconnect has been the demonstrations and stories of partner successes based on using the vendor solutions and services along with innovative efforts and collaborations involving a mix of partners, clients and customers. The object of these is to provide first-hand evidence and documentation that promoted technological capabilities and benefits are indeed being realized. These range from cutting edge leveraging of the latest in technologies (blockchain, cognitive computing), platforms (Bluemix, WATSON, IBM Cloud) and, of course, the basic infrastructure (Power, z Systems, network, storage) along with straightforward solutions by industry, sector and application (financial, medical, security, transaction management and handling).

More recently, IBM has been making it easier, and cheaper (in fact, free) for users to experience its wares in ‘try before you buy’ situations. As an example, in addition to presenting details of its efforts in Quantum Computing, IBM offers free access to developers, researchers and students interested in and able to “play” with Quantum technology in IBM’s cloud. The demo at the show as well as the technical staff supporting it were extremely helpful in answering my questions. Shortly after the show, IBM announced the QISKit open source project[2] which allows developers to conduct explorations on IBM’s Quantum Experience using a Python interface. See the IBM Tech Talk introduction to this here[3].

For those interested in mainframes, IBM provides easy free access to mainframe technology with its IBM z Systems Trial Program[4]. You can try the latest in z Systems software. Environments are pre-configured, no set-up needed and are available now for IBM z/OS Connect Enterprise Edition and Apache Spark on z/OS. Coming soon are Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence, Information Management System (IMS), a CICS Transaction Server, IBM OMEGAMON for JVM on z/OS with more to follow. 
No formal statements about the next generation mainframes were made during Interconnect. However, the current model was introduced 3 years ago. We suspect that in less than 12 months we’ll hear about a new generation mainframe. That and the fit between mainframe strengths and computing needs leads us to conclude that to start learning more about mainframes would be smart.

“Social Plastic”, LinuxONE, Mainframe, Blockchain => Social Change

For a couple of years, a major theme of Interconnect has been the ability of technology and its users to “change the world”. Examples abound, such as behavior changing products for photo/video sharing (Snapchat, Instagram) and social contact (Tumblr, FaceTime), gaming as well as projects aimed at solving the world’s largest problems, cancer treatment, genome modeling, pollution control, etc.

Last year, we met with and wrote about Dr. Piers Nash of the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Intensive Science (CDIS).  CDIS uses IBM Cloud Object Storage with Cleversafe technology to centrally store and manage vast amounts of genomic and clinical data thus accelerating discoveries.

This year, we had the opportunity to meet and speak with social change partners Shaun Frankson, Co-founder, Chief Strategist and Growth Hacker of The Plastic Bank[5] and Ron Argent, CEO and Founder of IBM Business Partner Cognition Foundry[6]. Working with IBM Labs and ISV partner Conquex, the partnership uses Blockchain and LinuxONE (mainframe) as they create a supply chain, provider and producer network in response to vendor/global consumer demand for products using “Social Plastic”. “Social Plastic” is made from recycled plastic containers that otherwise would be polluting oceans, rivers and the planet. 

Manufacturers will respond to consumers demanding “Social Plastic” in their products. The partners also wanted to address global poverty with a sustainable business aimed at the most poverty stricken areas. They needed to set up an affordable structure that allows disadvantaged entrepreneurs to build a sustainable business in even the poorest countries with little or no initial capital. They found their solution in Social Plastic markets that buy, barter, trade or exchange services for plastic trash.

Social Plastic markets were initially set up in Haiti and are underway in the Philippines, as fixed centers for collection, payment and recycling. These provide direct compensation to collectors in the form of cash (including non-monetary such as bitcoin), items (sustainable cooking stoves, solar-powered chargers, sugar cane briquettes, etc.) or services. It is important that the “pedigree” of the plastic and that payment be easily recorded, as well as securely tracked and managed. That is where the technical capabilities of the partners and infrastructure of blockchain implemented on a LinuxONE mainframe environment come into play.

Enterprise evolution continues

Interconnect demonstrates the evolution of the digitized enterprise, that is IBM As-a-Service. It is seen in the platforms (Cloud, storage, application, etc.) and stream of data (visual, financial, weather, location, spend, etc.), collected, sorted analyzed and interpreted. It is seen in the fully automated processes in apps designed to address specific problems (travel, investment, workplace safety, etc.). IBM continues to expand and build ecosystems of solutions. The object is to leverage technology in innovative, solution oriented ways that are available to as wide an audience as possible. Thinking about “speeds ‘n feeds” infrastructure is so outdated that it doesn’t even register with most attendees.

However, this doesn’t lessen the importance of the underlying infrastructure. It is the on-going evolution and advances in Power Systems, OpenPOWER, z Systems, etc. that makes possible today’s computing. It is what drives the radical improvements in data collection, transformation and transfer rates, accelerates processing and analysis to allow the real-time and near real-time results that are used to control operations to develop predictions that drive problem avoidance and minimize the need for corrective action. Standardization has its place aiding in cost management. However, it cannot substitute for or replace the powerful driving force of competition.

Watson is rapidly becoming a pervasive presence in computing – its applications range from preparation of tax forms to cutting edge simulations in multiple fields including medicine, traffic control, research and explorations in multiple areas as well as design, video, data cleansing, on and on. But, at its heart, Watson is a Power System.

IBM Cloud in all its multiple realizations is intimately tied to infrastructure. IBM-as-a-Service Cloud offerings that can be delivered on z Systems or Power Systems. The choice depends on the Cloud service and application. Hardware infrastructure is critical in the delivery as well as creation of services and applications. Cloud services that include analytics, blockchain, data cleansing, Hyperledger and whatever comes along next can and will make exacting demands on whatever platform they run on. Quantum computing may or may not be the next big “thing”. Whatever the results, IBM continues to evolve, extend and innovate to provide the best platforms possible to meet and exceed the expectations of today’s customers and as they face the future.

The Final Word

Interconnect 2017 was time well spent. IBM communicated a detailed, focused and competitive vision of IBM’s intent of how, where and when they will compete with multiple offerings.

It convincingly demonstrated that an enterprise-ready Cloud with distinct features and advantages critical to enterprise success is both necessary. IBM along with its customers, clients and partners provided significant evidence that IBM has already identified and is addressing a sizable and varied enterprise Cloud market.

IBM demonstrated their understanding of and ability to leverage the potential of blockchain and Hyperledger. They are aggressively advancing the spread of blockchain technology as valuable, effective tool already bringing change to multiple market segments.

This year’s Interconnect event, demonstrated IBM, partners, clients and customers have been able to effectively leverage a wide range of technologies Cognitive Computing, Mobility, DevOps and Analytics tied to resolve significant problems. IBM is also effectively addressing security issues, identified last year as an emerging focus. In her talk, Ginni identified the Cloud, and specifically the IBM Cloud as the Platform of the Future because it is: 1) Enterprise-strong, 2) built to optimize data operations, and 3) cognitive to the core. IBM gives every evidence of being able to successfully compete with that.

Challenges remain. IBM needs to grow market share with Cloud offerings. They have demonstrated more solid reasons to expect that to happen. Transitioning and transforming a company has always been tricky to accomplish. IBM has made significant strides in demonstrating vision and ability to execute. We expect that to continue. We will be at Interconnect 2018 to see if we are right.




[1] IBM will partner with Wanda Internet Technology Group to build, distribute and operate the IBM cloud platform.
[2] Here is the link to the information about and access to the QISKit: https://developer.ibm.com/open/openprojects/qiskit/
[4] See what is available at: ibm.biz/ibmztrial
[5] For more information, see: http://plasticbank.org/
[6] For more information, see: http://cognitionfoundry.com/