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.
IBM’s Steve Mills Goes Deep on the Cloud, Watson, POWER8
I think this is potentially very profound as far as building momentum. And we’re way out in front of anybody else in terms of having a real integrated environment, a full system with all of the capability that one would want to be able to do something of value. So now we need to get more people participating. If IBM becomes the gate for participation we can only scale so much on our own. So we need more people to participate.
What is your reaction to the opinions that came out about Watson not faring so well because it has not made any money for IBM yet?
We’re generating revenue now. So people have been paying us money; they began paying us money last year. We’ve been collecting money. In the beginning you get revenue but the revenue doesn’t cover all your expenses. Then the revenue builds over time and it finally crests over and you get to profit. There’s a pattern for any software business out there. Look at all the startups. How long does it take them to reach profitability? Often there’s a plowback phenomenon. Assuming your investors are willing to let you do it, you keep plowing money back into the business because you believe you can make it even bigger. And from a venture perspective there’s a back end exit strategy, which is either IPO or M&A.
So there’s really nothing different about what we’re doing and what a venture capitalist would do. Except we’re our own venture capitalist, we see a big opportunity and we’re going to keep investing for a period of time out in front of the revenues. But we also have a pretty aggressive pathway to generate more and more revenue.
We’re not going to break Watson out from a financial dynamics perspective, though. It sits inside of the larger business analytics initiative that we have. And that’s the only way we’re going to talk about it financially.
What’s in your workshop? What’s in your research channel that’s close to coming through?
There’s a lot of Watson-related stuff in research. We’re focused on trying to understand human beings – attitude, sentiment, preference. With so many of these Watson projects having to do with businesses wanting to better serve their customers, we have to help them to know their customer. And there is technology that all of us that write anything can use. You get access to someone’s writing and you can begin to understand aspects of their personality and preference.
Consumer-facing companies want to know what are you tweeting about, what’s showing up on Facebook, are there blogs that you’re interacting with, etc. Some things are easy to understand and some are harder to understand. We have technology that allows us to provide a deeper level of understanding. And what they want to do is create preference for consumers. They’ll say, ‘you seem to have a preference in this direction, what offers can I give you? Can I get greater loyalty out of you because I understand what you seem to care about by creating a preference profile?’
Also you have the whole five senses thing and all of these senses can be converted to numbers. You can put value on them. For instance, there are only a set number of flavors and everything else is combinatorial. And if you set the value, you can create menus. That’s what this Chef Watson thing does. As we create recipes we’re creating numerical value around taste. You can create numerical value around smell. You can do numerical value around audio or video, so we need Watson to see.
One of the challenges in teaching the systems is it’s a fairly limited input model. Whereas you take a child, a child has five senses so they’re learning lots of things around lots of things through observation and interaction. And they figure out the association fairly quickly. They learn what wood is and everything that’s wood, they know that it’s wood. However, a computer doesn’t know anything, it just has statistics. So you have to teach it a whole lot about wood before it finally gets to the point where it always gets wood correct. It’s an asymptotic set of conditions where you have so much information on a topic that you’re almost always right and you’re never wrong. It’s not the way the brain works, but that’s the way the computer works. It becomes 99.9999 probability of correctness.
IBM’s Steve Mills Goes Deep on the Cloud, Watson, POWER8
So the more ways you can get input into the system the faster you can build up domain knowledge. And teaching is one of the bigger challenges we have here. How fast can you teach it? How fast can it get to the point where then it becomes self-learning in the sense that it becomes self-correcting and self-reinforcing. Because it learns entity, attribute and relationship. And within entity, attribute and relationship you teach it the truth. When it has enough truths then it can deduce the next set of truths out of any new piece of information that’s presented. It uses classic AI constructs. And the problem with a lot of AI technologies over the years have been how hard it is to train the environment and then can it be multi-domain. You end up with fixed ontologies versus variable ontologies. We have a lot of things going on with ontologies and finding ontologies, surfacing ontologies independent of being taught the ontology. That’s a tough problem.
We’re also doing more language work. We’re doing English pretty well, but we have to do all the languages. And language is really hard.
Is SyNAPSE part of this?
The SyNAPSE capability is really about scale. It’s a mimicking of the number of connections in the human brain. If you can create enough connections that has an indication of your ability to feed patterns and connect those patterns up. It’s a scale and performance-enabler in effect. So it’s more of a mimicking of a human brain.
And that’s based on a chip?
Yes. The good news in that space is that the technologies are such that within a reasonable physical size you can pack an enormous number of connections in.
IBM lately has been making a lot more emphasis on design. How big of a push is that now within IBM?
It’s huge. We’ve always had a user-centered design initiative in IBM, so it’s not new. What we’re trying to do is invigorate the design community in IBM so that for a lot of the work we’re doing we want to start with the user experience and work our way back. We have a lot of products where that’s not the approach. If I’m trying to extend the scalability of DB2, I don’t need to worry nearly as much about the design. I mean there’s a DBA issue and there are some user issues, but it’s not profound. But when you think about analytics tools, which have to do with line-of-business people, visualization, how they want to see it, does the insight that you want them to derive jump out at them or is it somehow masked by the complexity of your UI? So that design orientation is critical for lots and lots of products.
And as we try to extend into more line-of-business people, people who have less and less traditional IT experience, they’re less tolerant of UIs and obscure workflows that make sense to somebody with a degree in computer science but makes no sense to them. Because they’re not thinking like computer scientists. So we’re putting all the development teams through the knothole of forcing design up front, design verification. You want to get the design right before you code, as opposed to you code and then think about how a customer is going to use this thing. Can I graft a UI on it that makes sense? It’s bringing that part of our development community up to a level above where they’ve been. Because oftentimes when pressure built up in a development project their voice was not getting heard because the team became totally fixated on getting their development function requirements out the door rather than getting the design right.
So we think of it as a big deal. And we’ve been doing it for a long time. We’ve had all kinds of user-centered initiatives at IBM for many years, but we felt it was time to bring it up to a much higher level of focus. That’s what Phil Gilbert is doing. It’s more than just being an evangelist or enthusiast for this, it’s also knowing what the team on the other side thinks. Phil knows how the development teams think. He knows that his young design people need to figure out how to connect to developers so developers know how to change their orientation towards design first rather than function and scale first. It’s a design-led model and it’s cultural.
IBM’s Steve Mills Goes Deep on the Cloud, Watson, POWER8
Adobe and Microsoft have both tried to do something like that. Do you see IBM having the capability to help bring developers and designers together like you’ve done with developers and operations pros with your DevOps solutions?
Well, I think the BlueMix project has been very design driven. We were never much concerned about the model itself and the functionality. We were concerned about how people were going to navigate through this.
When we came up with BlueMix I wasn’t staring at AWS. I was staring at Azure. Give Microsoft credit, they are very good at personal computing. They think a lot about the fidelity of the environment. Can you find your way to the things that you want? They’re very user sensitive in the way they come at these problems. They’re not all encompassing in the way they think of what people will do and will sacrifice some of the variety and openness and so on in favor of the fidelity of the environment. I don’t think you have to sacrifice the fidelity of the environment for the extensiveness of the environment. We think both can be managed. So I’m paying much more attention to Azure. I know what’s going on with AWS.
Well, if history is an indicator, Microsoft will continue to chip away at that and alternately lead and follow in that space.
Well, we’ll see where Satya [Nadella, CEO of Microsoft] goes here. They’ve kind of isolated their open-related activities off to the side. He may bring that into the mainstream, which is a fundamental change. They have been so Windows-centric; it’s been so much about Windows. There’s then this big internal catharsis in terms of ‘how do you develop and deliver that function in a multi-platform environment? How do you bring in all these various pieces of code from the open-source world, which is somewhat chaotic?’ It’s not necessarily as orderly and managed as they are used to. So there’s a lot of learning to be done there. To play effectively in open source you have to be willing to play in a lot of chaos.
Are we at the point where we can actually say that there is such a thing as IBM as a Service?
I really think more in terms of business capability being delivered as a service. I don’t think anybody necessarily sees that as ‘IBM as a Service.’ I think it’s more capability as a service, outcome as a service. It’s just defined in business terms by the business buyers that want an outcome. Can they get at the capability, the componentry, how much work do they have to do, how easy is it for me to get the outcome or result I’m looking for? If that gives me access to a whole set of IBM products and services in some kind of structured way, that’s good – that’s good for us and good for them. So, clearly, we have to deliver more of the IBM company to customers. I’m not quite ready to call that IBM as a Service, but I think we have to deliver more of our capability in an ‘as-a-Service’ mode.
What are your expectations for your POWER8 strategy and the role and potential for the OpenPOWER Foundation?
Unlimited. Inside this device (points to a tablet) is an ARM chip. Inside of your device is an ARM chip. Why is ARM popular? Because it’s an open licensing model. You have full access to the IP, you see the instruction set, and you know exactly how the instruction set comes together. You have access to design documents so you actually know how to make one of these things. And you can extend it and do it your way. So every ARM-based system is in many ways an ARM derivative. Then the next question is why aren’t there an equal number of Atom-based devices out there? Why does everybody keep doing ARM and not Atom? It’s pretty obvious why they’re doing ARM and not Atom. They love the licensing model on ARM and they love the independence that ARM gives them. And they’re fearful of the Intel model, which is proprietary and puts them in a position of being subservient to Intel.
The OpenPOWER licensing model is the ARM model. And we think there’s a big market out there for those that want an alternative to Intel at the server. There’s a reason why POWER8 has been flipped to little endian, there’s a reason why there’s an open licensing model now. And the energy and enthusiasm around this is building at a pretty rapid pace.
There have been some prominent names retiring from IBM recently, will you be sticking around for awhile?
Yeah. I mean people leave IBM all the time, you can’t stay around forever. But I’m not currently working on a retirement home or anything. I’m busy working every day. There’s still so much work to be done here. I’ll go to the bitter end. I hope it’s not in a body bag, but at some point they may have to throw me out. (Laughter)