An On-Demand Vision

IBM makes strides in fulfilling computing model's promise.

The theme of last weeks IBM PartnerWorld conference was "Winning in an on-demand world." And despite some excessive glitz involving leather-clad tumblers and Segway cycles (excusable because it was in Las Vegas), and the somewhat-odd spectacle of IBM CEO Sam Palmisano still trying to define what on demand is a year and a half after its introduction, the company has made huge progress in fulfilling its new computing promise. And that is good news for customers, even if they never intend to use IBM products.

IBM is a very big ship to turn, but once turned, it can set a direction for all others. My definition of on demand (and, Sam, feel free to use it) is computing that works—on both the simplest level of being able to easily connect stuff to determine whether your company is making or losing money, as well as on the complex level of allowing you to build applications that open up new realms of business, scientific and social possibilities.

"On demand is a fundamental shift in the computing model," Palmisano told an auditorium full of IBMs business partners. He went on to describe on-demand computing as an integrated architecture spanning a company, customers and suppliers that is able to quickly respond to capacity or security needs. My guess is he will still be explaining it a year from now.

In a series of interviews with IBM executives at the conference, I had a sense of those usually somber types enjoying the momentum of success marked by increased market share and talk of how they are aligned with the next wave in computing. On-demand computing might be tricky to define externally, but those inside the company seem to know the marching orders in detail.

In IBMs Software Group, the on-demand initiative has taken the form of a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle melds open-source, security, management and development tools into a business process integration engine.

"You have to leverage the assets you have; you have to tie the processes together," said Steve Mills, senior vice president of the Software Group. Mills sees on demand as the third stage of computing, after mainframes and client/server models. The importance is less in the definition than in his ability to put the IBM research, acquisition and marketing engine into an integrated operation. IBMs WebSphere operation is as much an attempt to integrate a range of businesses as it is to integrate a range of technologies.

Bill Zeitler, senior vice president of the Systems Group, and Stephen Ward, senior vice president of the Personal Systems Group, have done the same in their operations, aligning them with the Palmisano game plan. Credit goes to the personal systems team for remembering the value of the ThinkPad and building a set of personal computing products around the Think brand. The new ThinkPads ability to rebuild itself via a push button rather than a service call is the best laptop innovation in the past five years.

In past economic cycles, IBM came into an economic upturn offering proprietary products that required long and expensive development and installation programs. This time, IBM is championing standards-based computing and inviting its development partners to solve customer problems quickly, efficiently and in a cost-effective manner. That is a big difference.

In addition to IBMs on-demand push, other companies in the enterprise computing space have been staking out new positions. Hewlett-Packard, for example, is gambling that building a company that touches everything from consumer electronics to high-level enterprise computing will allow it to learn from the disparate operations and bring value across consumer and enterprise boundaries. Dell, on the other hand, is churning its way up the computing stack using its assembly and delivery expertise to claim the territory once thought unreachable by low-cost, build-to-order companies.

With these clear differences in strategy, customers will vote with their budgets as to whether IBMs on-demand approach is the computing choice they demand.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be contacted at