IBM’s “Smarter Planet” Will Capitalize on HW, Analytics

Rod Adkins, the SVP and Group Executive of IBM’s Systems and Technology Group (STG) took the time to engage the influencer community quite early in his tenure for a well-run event at the Watson Research Lab in Yorktown Heights. “I’ve been in this position for 38 days,” he  reminded us, as STG’s AR team widened the usually hardware-focused invited audience to include generalists and more software-focused folk like me.  IBM execs from IBM’s Software Group, its Research organization and corporate, joined us  for a look at the science behind the systems, a compelling addition to the agenda. And another pitch for IBM’s analytics thrust was a scene-stealer.

Adkins is hardly new to the party: he spent 10 of the last 12 years in STG in addition to the work on pervasive computing he did in the Software Group. “We play a vital role in the Smarter Planet initiative – we have to provide optimized infrastructure to capture, manage and deliver all the data it runs on,” he pointed out. He clearly articulated a strategic path for 2010 to match his aggressive influencer communications agenda: growth in workload optimized platforms, systems software value capture, delivery model changes and data center wins. For each, organizational changes, investments, messages and new offerings are well scoped and already underway. STG has 47% of IBM’s R&D budget and is investing in process and packaging; technology design; hardware systems; systems software; and client support. Yes, research into client support – a topic well worth its own discussion, but beyond our scope for this post.

Adkins takes the helm of a ship in good order: 2009 performance to date has been steady, and compares well with its peers given the economic environment. Revenues for Q3 were down 12 percent from the third quarter of 2008 (better than HP’s 17% decline in its server group). IBM’s mainframe, late in the z10 product cycle, decreased 26 percent. It’s not unusual to see declines at this stage as the market anticipates the next (usually well known) version. Still, z continues to defy all predictions of its demise: it has almost doubled its share of systems over $250K in the last 8 years from 17.2% (Q400) to 32.1%(Q408). Adkins touted IDC and Gartner reports of market share gains for Power Systems, System x and disk and tape storage during the third quarter. According to industry analyst sources (IDC and Gartner) revenues from System x servers increased 1 percent; microelectronics OEM revenues were fairly flat at a 1 percent decline. The 45 nanometer business is running ahead of the previous (65 nm) ramp – its production run is already sold out and fab performance is good. IBM’s acquired XIV storage has shipped its 1000th unit – 70% of which went to new customers. And IBM claims to have capitalized very effectively on the turmoil in Sun’s base: “We’ve won business from 100 of Sun’s top 300 customers.”  Even system software has a few things to crow about: the Migration Factory solution, IBM asserts, has driven 2000 migrations to IBM POWER systems so far this year.

IBM is very optimistic about upcoming technology introductions: its next generation Power7 chip architecture will feature substantial performance and energy consumption improvements, as well as some interesting new dynamic thread management capabilities. Big bets are being placed around the notion of “workload-optimized systems,” pre-integrated solutions such as:

  • Cloudburst private cloud hardware appliances for secure deployment and management of  application environments
  • The new scale-out NAS (SONAS), for standards-based, large scale file storage
  • Smart Analytics System, a pre-integrated  analytic appliance that delivers IBM data warehouse software preinstalled on an IBM server and storage

Some innovations are delivered as what IBM is calling “system optimizers.” For example, the Smart Analytics brand is extended to the Smart Analytics Optimizer, a software-based accelerator (available now for z and moving to other platforms) that automates the movement of frequently queried data into as much as a terabyte of main memory, where other tricks like vector processing and a new “optimized storage format” (I haven’t explored details of this yet) IBM claims will dramatically improve performance. IBM’s decades of database  optimizer research enable it to drop this in and “know” when to push queries to the in-memory database. This kind of hybrid system will change the architecture of data management if it is proved to work as it rolls out – and I wouldn’t bet against it.

IBM has been ramping its geographic coverage with 56 added global branch offices and will add 15 more in 2010. The channel is getting more investment in education, enablement, and training in how to improve profitability. And STG has created a new System Software business unit to drive development, revenue and margin growth, with a service management focus that will take HP on in one of its core areas of strength.

Where STG Fits in the Smarter Planet Story

John Iwata, IBM’s Senior Vice President Marketing Communications, gave us a conversational look at how IBM continues to apply deep probes into its own business to understand company customers, their needs, and resulting opportunities. “We looked at 20 showcase IBM solutions that we had built and implemented for clients,” he said. “We found that all 20 had the entire portfolio of IBM product and service, technology and in almost all of them the Research division played an important role in the eyes of the client as differentiation as to why they chose IBM, and” – perhaps most interesting – “are  instrumenting their physical systems. By 2010 there will be 1B transistors per human; there has been a hockey stick in deployment. The internet of smart things, and the associated data, are the wellspring of IBM’s Smarter Planet thinking.”

By now, some of the examples are familiar but Iwata unveiled one I hadn’t seen before: smart sewers. Who would have thought? But IBM predicts at least $70B of expected investment in sewer modernization. In San Francisco, smart manholes have a float attached to a wireless transmitter to gauge water flow and water level.  Our sewer systems, many of which are a century old, are built for average volume, but when you have above average flow they are easily overwhelmed. It’s a familiar phenomenon. And worse things happen: as I write this, a 100-year old main is being repaired after rupturing two days ago and causing massive problems, creating a giant sinkhole flooding streets and buildings, and closing street. Perhaps future systems will be able to anticipate these failures better.  Iwata pointed out that other instrumentation might let you learn that a certain pump needs to be fixed; doing so beforehand avoids similar failures and catastrophes. And, of course, cities will get smarter than “managing by averages” permits by tracking in real time, and learning from the data.

Iwata noted that “We don’t label anything ‘dumb’ in our messaging. Nobody designed the systems that way.” Advances in technology permit new ways of thinking, even though, as he acknowledged, the timing could not have been worse in terms of the economic conditions. It’s a leadership agenda, not just an ad campaign. IBM took Smarter Planet to governments all over the world – it can raise job growth. Much economic stimulus money flows here.  Iwata has been delighted to see how the field has taken this program up enthusiastically – they don’t always, do so, he acknowledged wryly. Over 80 field-driven events have been done, with Ho Chi Minh City being one of the most recent, focusing on a “smart food” supply initiative. Emerging markets are looking to leapfrog from traditional systems to post-industrial, information age ones. IM stands to gain enormous opportunities from all this. It can do well by doing good.

The Mathematician’s View of Advanced Analytics

The star turn from the wings at this event came from Brenda Dietrich, a last minute substitute when a snowstorm in Minnesota prevented a Mayo Clinic presenter from joining the meeting. Dietrich, an IBM Fellow, and VP from Research, has made many contributions over an illustrious career; she shared with us that she coded the 1959 algorithm underlying GPS as a new intern and was the largest user of computing power at IBM that year. Today’s GPS device makes for a good example of the potential for advanced analytics, when one thinks about it.

Dietrich says analytics can be applied in many places – for example, she and her team have been modeling IBM’s biggest customers, and their own sales organization – and have made recommendations on making adjustments to the configuration of their sales force. Some of the changes were implemented – and they’ve seen large lift (over $1B.)

Dietrich pointed out that the state of the art in statistics is to “extract the explainable and extend.” Of course, sometimes that’s not as easy as it may sound. For example, the Super Bowl occurs on a different day every year – how to put information on its impact on your sales back in to your predictive model to leverage it in retail (to sell more big TVs, or just chips and beer) is not obvious. She also talked about the frontier cases – such as streaming data, which opens the door for a new type of statistics. Massive data sets from the mobile web, like GPS and OnStar, could be the basis for exciting new opportunities if used effectively. And her proximity to the STG teams gives her a view of how the science of analytics can benefit from new architectures. She noted that “most of the algorithms in the field assume serial, not parallel, hardware – so a lot of work on things like matrix inversion can be rethought.”

Finally, as a truly provocative thought, Dietrich challenged us to consider what would happen if computers got smart enough with type checking at a higher order of computation. What if a built-in help system could tackle the garbage in, garbage out problem by telling users “I’m sorry, but there isn’t enough data to make that prediction?” Think of it as “warning labels on mathematical models.” Might have been nice for the quants on Wall Street to have had that – although there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t have ignored it, as they did with other warnings that Dietrich said ware not only visible, but had been noted.

It was easy to walk away from this presentation impressed by the inside look at how advance and predictive analytics are thought about – and many of the attendees were. Even more intriguing was the obvious connection to Smarter Planet – it’s in the very nature of these techniques that they can do things with the newly instrumented physical systems that have not been thought of before. Delivering on the promise is one thing, but IBM is after something bigger: finding opportunities that have not been thought of yet. Few would have thought of mathematical work of this kind as creative endeavor, but Dietrich’s enthusiasm, command and passion make it clear that it is just that, and the best is likely yet to come.

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

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