IBM's Steve Mills Goes Deep on the Cloud, Watson, POWER8

IBM senior executive Steve Mills talks about the cloud, Watson, POWER8, competition with Microsoft and more in a Q&A with eWEEK.

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Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive - Software & Systems at IBM, sat down with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft for a series of interviews recently where Mills spoke candidly about competing with Microsoft and the advantages IBM has in taking an open approach, among many other things.

How do you convey your cloud message to new customers? And can you explain how you’re going to take on AWS?

I think that’s recognized by many customers already. You wouldn’t have as many people on SoftLayer if there wasn’t a recognition that it certainly represented an option to AWS before we even bought the company. It continues to do that and we’re adding hundreds of new companies onto the platform every quarter.

So I think part of the challenge here for enterprises is getting them to see BlueMix as a great place to go to do application prototyping and build applications. The importance of that initiative is to make it easy for people to build applications, provide a broad range of componentry, open tooling, an open environment with the kind of fit, finish and fidelity that I think they often attribute to Microsoft. They don’t attribute that to AWS. AWS does have its collection of stuff. It’s heavily steered toward a set of unique Amazon-based structures, which is where they want to take you. But they do have other things there. But it’s collections; it’s not put together in a way that steers the developer against the domain that they’re in and into the kind of thing they may want to build.

Enterprises care a lot about hybrid. They want to integrate front end to back end – 'I want to put this out in the cloud, but I want to move data back and forth.' And delivering those integration mechanisms and APIs is going to be the key differentiator for BlueMix. Allowing customers to create their own private workspaces where they have their components and things they want to put into the environment, again, is something I think we can excel in. Because we do understand the enterprise. We know what they’re dealing with in terms of their own internal componentization and creating their own API structures and so on. So I think there are a lot of dimensions that we can leverage with this offering to go beyond anything anybody else has out there.

And AWS is one of the players, but we’re looking at Heroku and Engine Yard, and obviously Azure. We’re looking at all the different things that are out there. What do people like and why? And can we bring all of the things they like with each one of these things and then go beyond what any one of them is doing? That’s the intent.

How strategic is it that the first BlueMix Garage is based in San Francisco? Are you trying to meet these kind of startup developers where they live?

Well, first of all often times you meet developers online. (Laughter) So it doesn’t matter where you are or they are. But these various meetups and hackathon events are also part of the culture. And you may be familiar with what we’ve done around developerWorks, which is one of the most popular developer sites on the Web. So it’s not like we’re doing this for the first time. Our level of popularity over the years has rivaled MSDN [Microsoft Developer Network] as far as number of developers, number of visits and amount of activity. If you look at MSDN and developerWorks, those two things together far exceed any of the newer things that are materializing here in the industry. So somewhere or another we’re not getting credit for all kinds of pre-existing work and the multi-million developer community that we already address today.

You guys announced a flavor of Watson for the enterprise developer. How big a deal is that?

I’m trying to make Watson more of a viral thing. It’s certainly not something you would characterize as being simple. It’s easy to see how individual products or mechanisms become viral. Watson’s a system; it’s an environment. It’s a much more sophisticated thing. So I use the term viral more in an analogous way. So this idea of Watson for the enterprise and opening up to allowing people to come in and play, experiment, sandbox, some of the stuff we’re doing with universities… We launched a bunch of university training programs with schools like MIT, Berkeley and Carnegie-Mellon that are incorporating Watson into their curriculum.

All these things are about creating an ever larger ecosystem of people to participate and get to experience what this thing is in a way that excites them about doing something even more creative that can finally move to production. And the money that we will make will finally be the result of people putting things into production as opposed to experimenting. So we’re trying to open the aperture in as many ways as we can.