IBM – something old, something new, something borrowed, still Big Blue?

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IBMIBM recently held its customer event, Edge, is Las Vegas. Although totally new announcements were a little thin on the ground, there were various items that are newsworthy.

Starting with the old. IBM continues to bang the ‘Innovation’ drum that it has been banging for the best part of twenty years. Quocirca has long cautioned against a pure focus on innovation, recommending a balanced approach between improvement, innovation and invention. Every discussion seemed to have ‘innovation’ in it – a message that is now somewhat non-innovative in itself.

Alongside this was more messaging around the mainframe. By now, even the most hardened ivory-towerists must accept that the mainframe just refuses to die, and IBM’s increasing focus on it as a different workhorse under either a straightforward ‘zSystem running Linux’ or the better ‘LinuxOne’ moniker has breathed more life into the monster.

Indeed, Systems GM and EVP Tom Rosamilia stated that he doesn’t expect many (if any) new logos in the zOS camp. However, he also stated how he believes that acceptance of how different workloads require different underlying platforms would drive mainframe hardware sales was apparent.

Storage is a renewed focus. IBM seemed to have spent a long time in maintaining a ‘spinning disk is best’ attitude – even after acquiring Texas Memory Systems (TMS). Now, Flash is top of mind – and not just as a hard disk replacement via SSDs. 3D NAND, NVMe, non-volatile DIMMs and so on are now in the mix – along with a stronger focus on object-based storage. Phase-change storage systems are still on the cards as well – just not within the next two generations of systems – something more for 2018 or thereabouts.

Elsewhere, the OpenPower initiative seems to be doing well – at least in the number of companies having joined the group. Rosamilia stated that he would now like to see a focus on products coming out from the group, rather than a focus on acquiring new company names. For the longer-term future of Power, OpenPower is key – and some members of the OpenPower Initiative may need additional help from IBM – for example in scaling the Power architecture and its need for power (with a small ‘p’) for effective use across a wide internet of things/everything (IoT/E) environment.

On the new side, IBM announced new Power platforms, and a raft of agreements between themselves and third parties. Whereas with any Intel-focused vendor, such agreements could be seen as tick-box offerings, with IBM, it is different. Sure, a Linux-based service or application can be run on Power, but it will not run in its most effective manner. The agreements with the likes of Hortonworks, NGINIX, Ubuntu and others were all around how these companies were porting to Power – not just moving Linux images over.

On the borrowed side, IBM continues to make the most of open source and is partnering more strongly with many other vendors in the space. It’s agreements with Red Hat are being extended, while the ones with Suse continue, alongside the newer ones with Canonical around Ubuntu.

The major borrowing though, leads to the biggest aspect of IBM’s new work. The underlying system that enables Bitcoin to work is called a Blockchain. The first generation Blockchain has been shown to have multiple issues, not least around scalability and security. In order to try and address these issues, many different companies started work on their own Blockchain systems.

Blockchain is most visible example of a distributed ledger – no one entity has control of the way that the information held within the ledger is stored, which means that all transactions are held in what should be an immutable, auditable and secure manner. However, this multitudinous splitting of work on different Blockchain replacements was heading towards a cliff – the promise of Blockchain would be lost between a raft of proprietary systems that did not interact with each other.

IBM had started work on its own OpenLedger product. Then, the Hyperledger initiative was started by the Linux Foundation, bringing together many of these companies that were heading off in different directions.

Now, the concept of the Hyperledger is bearing fruit, with a raft of agreed standards meaning that the basic Blockchain backbone to the system remains open – but can use different plug in modules over areas such as consensus agreement mechanisms.

IBM has been a big player in the Hyperledger initiative – and has taken the lead in how Blockchain security has to be improved. In the past couple of years, there have been a few proven hacks of Bitcoin systems – some external, and some internal. By using mainframe security principles, IBM can make outside attacks almost impossible. By making all the activity of the Blockchain occur in a secure mainframe partition where not even sysadmins have any access, then it has applied the same levels of security against internal attacks.

One example of a customer using IBM’s Hyperledger is Everledger, a U.K.-based company that currently deals in the need for a trusted chain of provenance in dealing with the trading of diamonds. Everledger knows that it can easily port this to pretty much any high-value item, such as fine art, fine wine, vintage vehicles, antiques and so on – a massive market with a lot of money to lose through fraud, so a lot of money to invest to prevent such fraud.

However, Blockchain is not just for high value goods. Examples were shown in the import/export process, where the use of paper-based systems is estimated to have a global cost in the high $10bs per annum. Registering the needed ‘paperwork’ against object in a distributed ledger can get rid of all of this paperwork – and, again, cut out opportunities for fraud.

Beyond this, a distributed ledger can also be used at the consumer level – a place for someone to lodge their house title deeds, their will, photographs of their loved ones – anything that has a value to them.

To this end, IBM has made its Hyperledger available on its development cloud, Bluemix, for any developer to look at and play with. It has made some strides in making it easy to use, with developers not needing too much knowledge of how a distributed ledger works. Quocirca will be publishing a longer report on distributed ledgers soon.

So – still Big Blue: lots of hardware; still moving over to a hybrid ‘cloud-first’ strategy with Softlayer and Bluemix. However, IBM is pushing forward with stuff that previously seemed to stall in its labs.

Will IBM succeed? Well, the elephant has been taught to dance in the past. Maybe this time, it will be waltzing in step with all its partners.

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