In the normal course of tech industry happenings, spring is the season of Tier 1 vendor conferences for customers and partners. By this time last year, I had attended CES, IBM Think and PartnerWorld, and Dell Tech World, and was preparing to fly to Orlando, Fla., for Lenovo Accelerate. This year the COVID-19 pandemic has acted like a viral monkey wrench, causing chaos across global businesses and economies.
In these abnormal times, what can IT vendors do to address the fundamental challenges, concerns and fears that their customers and partners are suffering? We learned quite a bit about that at last week’s IBM Think 2020 Digital conference, an event in which the company shifted its annual conference to an online format. Let’s consider how IBM engaged and communicated with participants, as well as a few of the new and updated offerings the company introduced during Think 2020 Digital.
Arvind Krishna: Envisioning a Post-COVID World
For experienced conference attendees, the keynote address from the host vendor’s CEO is a must-see event. Why so? Because along with providing insights into the company he or she leads, these keynotes typically touch on all of the key themes and announcements that will be restated and reinforced in other keynotes and strategic presentations during the conference. In essence, the CEO keynote acts as a microcosm of the larger event.
But IBM Think 2020 was also the debut of new CEO Arvind Krishna. After having been chosen for the role on Jan. 30 when the potential shape and impact of COVID-19 was just becoming widely known, Krishna’s first day on the job was April 6. New chief executives often arrive at inopportune times, especially those leading organizations in distress. However, it is difficult to think of a case similar to Krishna becoming IBM’s CEO as the novel coronavirus was shaking governments, markets and companies everywhere to their foundations.
So how did Krishna do at Think 2020? Extremely well, overall. He began his keynote on a broadly personal note, acknowledging the extreme challenges and stress that IBM’s customers and partners are laboring under, and expressing his appreciation for their participation in the conference. But Krishna also stated that while COVID-19 “is a powerful force of disruption and an unprecedented tragedy,” it “is also a critical turning point … an opportunity to develop new solutions, new ways of working and new partnerships.”
In addition, he emphasized the value that his company’s long history and experience offers to customers and partners. “That IBM has been here before gives me perspective and confidence. This will be seen as the moment when the digital transformation of businesses and society accelerated, and together we laid the groundwork for a post-COVID-19 world. Let’s get to work.”
That focus on defining IBM’s roles as a reliable ally and model of business resiliency set a powerful tone for the rest of the keynote.
The Imperatives of Hybrid Cloud and AI
Krishna continued with what he called the Four Imperatives of Hybrid Cloud (partly inspired, he said, by VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger’s “Five Imperatives for Digital Business”). They are:
- History: Companies rarely start from scratch. All carry years of IT decision-making in complex workloads, apps and systems integrated with operations and security. Hybrid cloud meets you in terms of the IT choices you’ve made and the places you do computing.
- Choice: Relying on one cloud platform or operator automatically locks you in. Hybrid cloud breaks those shackles.
- Physics: No single solution does it all. Workloads are limited by the speed of light. To maximize performance, IT systems need to be physically close to data and systems.
- Law: Where you are located physically impacts the way you do business in terms of law, privacy and security regulations and compliance practices. Hybrid cloud solutions can be designed to fully address those issues.
Krishna noted another imperative—data sovereignty—whose evolution is still in process. But he also underscored how IBM’s efforts around hybrid cloud, including “big bold bets” like the Red Hat acquisition, are designed to deliver solutions that support, extend and enhance these imperatives and the customer value they represent.
Krishna’s discussion of AI was framed in practical terms related to one of the more shocking effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: the near wholesale failure of global supply chains to provide critically important goods, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care professionals and other front-line personnel.
“How can businesses’ supply chains become more resilient to global shocks?” Krishna asked. In significant part by leveraging AI and automation technologies to handle everyday tasks, thus enabling IT management and staff to focus their energies on higher value efforts. AI and automation tools also have valuable roles to play in the deployment and management of secure infrastructures that support new business models and processes, such as working from home (WFH).
Krishna pointed out that though COVID-19 is causing enormous challenges, “it is also underscoring the need for IT platforms and solutions that enable speed, flexibility, insight and innovation.” In addition, he noted how the pandemic has highlighted “why choosing which IT platforms to work with is the most consequential decision business people can make.”
Think 2020 Digital Announcements
IBM made a number of significant announcements at Think 2020 Digital, but I found two particularly notable: the company’s new solutions and initiatives for edge computing in the 5G era and the new enhancements and features in its Cloud Pak for Data v 3.0 portfolio.
- IBM’s edge computing offerings combine the company’s cloud expertise and experience crafting vertical industry solutions and services with Red Hat’s OpenShift platform for hybrid multicloud deployments. Solutions include the IBM Edge Application Manager capable of enabling the management of up to 10,000 edge nodes by a single administrator; the IBM Telco Network Cloud Manager, which enables service providers (SPs) to manage workloads on both Red Hat OpenShift and Red Hat OpenStack; and edge-enabled versions of IBM Visual Insights, IBM Maximo Production Optimization, IBM Connected Manufacturing, IBM Asset Optimization, IBM Maximo Worker Insights and IBM Visual Inspector. The company also announced a new dedicated IBM Services team for edge computing deployments. In addition, the company announced the IBM Edge Ecosystem and Telco Network Cloud Ecosystem, groups of like-minded vendors who will work together to help customers in edge computing deployments. The Ecosystems are made up of equipment manufacturers, IT and networking vendors and software providers, including Cisco, Dell Technologies, Intel, Juniper, NVIDIA, Samsung and many others. Finally, the announcement provided testimonials by three early adopters of IBM’s edge solutions and services: Vodafone, Samsung and G-Evolution.
- IBM’s Cloud Pak for Data is a fully integrated data and AI platform that modernizes and simplifies how businesses collect, organize and analyze data to infuse AI functions into their businesses. Since it was launched in the second half of 2018, Cloud Pak for Data has steadily evolved via new and enhanced features. During Think 2020 Digital, IBM announced new additions to Cloud Pak for Data 3.0, including a revamped Unified User Interface that makes navigating and scaling the platform easier and more intuitive, IBM Planning Analytics and IBM InfoSphere Master Data Connect service extensions, the ability to pull in data from The Weather Company, and the addition of IBM InfoSphere Virtual Data Pipeline (for an extra layer of security and control) and Watson OpenScale’s Model Risk Management (for automating the active testing of AI models throughout their life cycle). The new 3.0 version of Cloud Pak for Data also includes the ability to run on IBM’s Power Systems servers (in addition to x86-based systems), which should be welcomed by a substantial number of the company’s Power System customers.
In addition to the edge computing platform for 5G and the new/enhanced Cloud Pak for Data features, IBM announced Watson AIOps, which uses AI to automate the detection and diagnosis of and response to IT anomalies in real time, as well as a new cloud platform that supports the stringent security and privacy requirements of financial services companies. Finally, IBM revealed revisions to PartnerWorld, its business partner network, that includes clear pathways for creating applications, developing code, integrating intellectual property (IP) or delivering services with the IBM Cloud.
So, what’s the most important takeaway from IBM Think 2020 Digital? The company deserves congratulations for a conference that offered support to distressed customers and partners while providing a nuanced view of the roles it can play as both a vendor and ally.
The new and enhanced solutions announced during the conference all reflected or clarified an essential point about IBM: that few if any IT vendors can claim greater understanding of or deeper insights into so wide a range of enterprise businesses, vertical industries and global markets.
It is also worth noting that at the same time IBM was discussing how customers and partners could successfully face the challenges before them and successfully adapt to changing circumstances, Krishna described how IBM itself intends to evolve.
At the end of his keynote, Krishna stated IBM’s commitment to four essential goals: 1) continuing to apply and deepen its understanding of business and industry needs, requirements and opportunities, 2) furthering its leadership in developing and delivering good, trustworthy technologies, 3) fostering a more entrepreneurial culture that is easier for customers to work with, and 4) remaining obsessed with listening to clients’ needs, preparing them for an uncertain future and supporting their journeys to hybrid cloud and AI.
By the conclusion of Think 2020 Digital, it was clear that IBM understands the challenges that businesses face in these far-from-normal times. It is also clear that the company plans to use its historical and business perspective to be a reliable ally and help customers and partners develop the resiliency they need for what will be, at best, a difficult journey.
Charles King is a principal analyst at PUND-IT and a regular contributor to eWEEK. © 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.