Annual technology customer and user conferences take on any number of shapes, but their underlying structure typically indicates the subjects and themes that are closest to the host vendor’s heart. In most cases, new commercial products and services take pride of place. In fact, it is common for companies to save-up special announcements for conferences. In others, major customer and partner wins enjoy the brightest spotlights. Virtually all are used to clarify and amplify vendors’ strategic goals, a sensible exercise when you have an interested, attentive audience at your disposal.
Last week’s IBM Think 2022 conference contained many of these points, but the company used much of its time and energy to highlight forward-looking strategies and efforts in hybrid cloud, AI/automation, quantum computing, blockchain and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance). Why that makes sense and how well it worked are worth close examination.
Reinforcing past announcements and initiatives
Why did it make sense for IBM to focus on the future? For two reasons. First, the six months or so leading up to Think 2022 had already featured major, even singular product, service, acquisition and strategic partner announcements, including:
- The formal separation of Kyndryl which formerly drove nearly $19B in annual IBM services and consulting revenues
- A new 127-quantum bit (qubit) ‘Eagle’ processor and a preview of plans for IBM Quantum System Two, its next generation of quantum systems
- Breakthrough semiconductor technology (in partnership with Samsung) with vertical transistor designs that could reduce chip energy consumption by up to 85 percent
- Acquisitions designed to heighten IBM’s skills/competitiveness in automated order taking (McD Tech Labs), security (ReaQta), hybrid cloud consulting in Australia (SXiQ), ESG (Envizi) and 5G/cloud consulting for telcos (Sentaca)
- Mitigation of cyberattacks and ransomware exploits with the new IBM FlashSystem Cyber Vault
- A new effort with longtime partner SAP to help mutual customers move SAP workloads to hybrid cloud
- The IBM Sustainability Accelerator, a global pro bono social impact program that applies company technologies, such as hybrid cloud and AI, and an ecosystem of experts to enhance and scale non-profit and government organizations’ operations
- The next-generation IBM z16 system which features the company’s new Telum processors that include an integrated on-chip AI accelerator for analyzing transactions in real time at scale
Second, these and other IBM announcements and initiatives offer a clear indication of the market-focused strategic path that chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna has charted since he was elected to those positions in October 2020. In other words, Think 2022 acted as platform for IBM to clarify and underscore how far it has come under Krishna’s leadership and to enumerate its future direction and goals.
Think 2022 announcements
So what substantial announcements and partnerships did IBM highlight at the conference?
- A new roadmap to practical quantum computing, including delivering three new scalable architectures designed to enable a new class of modular and networked quantum processors with the aim of achieving IBM’s 2025 goal: a 4,000+ qubit processor built with multiple clusters of modularly scaled processors. The new offerings include a 433-qubit processor, IBM Osprey, which the company expects to introduce later this year, and IBM Condor, the world’s first universal quantum processor with 1000+ qubits which the company plans to introduce in 2023. IBM will also build a frictionless development experience with Qiskit Runtime and cloud-based workflows to provide simplified, and flexible options for developers. This approach aims to achieve the intelligent and efficient distribution of problems across quantum and classical systems and help enable an era of quantum-centric supercomputing. IBM also noted that since announcing its quantum roadmap in 2020, it has delivered on each of the stated targets on its timeline.
- A new strategic collaboration with Amazon Web Services will deliver IBM software as a Service (aaS) on AWS. The first of its kind agreement expands on IBM software aaS offerings on IBM Cloud and spans automation, data and AI, security and sustainability capabilities. The solution is built on Red Hat OpenShift Service on AWS (ROSA) and runs cloud-native on AWS. Customers will be able to access the IBM solutions via the AWS Marketplace. Moving forward, customers will be able to run a broad array of IBM’s software catalog as cloud-native services on AWS, including IBM API Connect, IBM Db2, IBM Observability by Instana APM, IBM Maximo Application Suite, IBM Security ReaQta, IBM Security Trusteer, IBM Security Verify, and IBM Watson Orchestrate, with others to follow later this year. The companies are also committing to joint investments, including integrated go-to-market activities across sales and marketing, channel incentives, developer enablement and training, and solution development for key verticals and industries, including oil and Gas, and travel and transportation.
- A new IBM Institute for Business Value Study revealed that sustainability is rising on corporate agendas and CEOs recognize it as a business imperative and growth driver. However, a lack of reliable data insights is hindering executives’ ability to act. Respondents stated that their investments in sustainability have more than doubled as a percentage of revenue over the last five years and 95% of CEOs reported being at least in the piloting stage of implementing a sustainability strategy. Despite that, less than a quarter (23%) said they are implementing those strategies across their entire organization.
- Education initiatives with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Specialisterne Foundation, and six Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) to provide no-cost STEM job training to U.S. military veterans, neurodivergent learners worldwide, and university students from underrepresented communities in the U.S. These collaborations underscore IBM’s focus on providing STEM job training to traditionally underrepresented communities as part of its commitment to skill 30 million people worldwide by 2030 to create equitable, inclusive economic opportunities while also addressing a longstanding STEM job skills shortage impacting the business community. The initiatives include utilizing IBM SkillsBuild as an enhanced resource for job training and establishing more than 20 Cybersecurity Leadership Centers with HBCUs.
Co-creation and being “an innovation powerhouse”
Think 2022 also included “ask me anything” Q&A sessions for media and analysts; one with Roger Premo, GM of IBM’s Strategy and Corporate Development and the other with CEO Arvind Krishna.
Premo focused largely on providing background for announcements, speakers and presentations made during the conference, and why IBM’s central focus on hybrid cloud, AI and other areas make commercial and strategic sense. “Practically every enterprise across every industry is focusing on digital transformation … (which has) gone from something that drove efficiency inside the business to often (being necessary) to compete and innovate (their) businesses with technology.”
Among the points Premo addressed was one I found particularly compelling: “Digital transformation continues but our clients have to deal with so many different things, (including) heterogeneity of where their technology runs. I think there was a view in the market that the world was moving towards more homogeneity, to (companies working with) single public clouds. If anything, over the last several years, we’ve seen the recognition that (heterogeneous) hybrid cloud is pervasive. It’s here to stay. It’s datacenters. It’s multiple public clouds. It’s increasingly edge locations and SaaS applications. Data is integral to how our customers manage their businesses so that while heterogeneity continues to grow it is (causing) friction on that digital innovation clients (are looking to achieve).”
Premo’s connection of the challenges of heterogeneous computing and hybrid cloud makes perfect sense for those of us who follow the evolution of business IT. Over the past few years, any number of proselytizers have incorrectly claimed that public cloud was a bromide for the growing costs and inherent complexities of on-premises data centers. But since public clouds are themselves in a state of constant evolution, no single cloud offered (or offers) everything that enterprises require.
Not surprisingly, most businesses engaged with whatever public cloud platforms that made financial and technical sense to them while continuing to maintain private on-premises IT assets and data. As a result, the challenges of IT heterogeneity that were commonplace in the 1990s and 2000s have been compounded by public cloud heterogeneity and geographic complexity.
Where does IBM stand in all this? In his Q&A session with industry analysts, Arvind Krishna made a point about the critical importance of “creativity and co-creation” and the role they play in IBM’s approach and willingness to engage in strategic partnerships. Those include relationships with traditional partners, like SAP, as well as vital new relationships with AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. Sometimes they are vendors in emerging areas such as edge computing and 5G, and sometimes they are IBM clients. Sometimes they are experts in specific markets or regions. Sometimes projects involve several different classes of players.
The key point of any relationship, Krishna emphasized, is that it must “Be a win for our partners, but a telling piece (of the puzzle) is that no one knows everything.” That understanding, that despite the depth of its expertise and the length of its experience, not even IBM can do it all is profound. The key, instead, is for the company to discover or recognize partnerships and areas where it can add value by focusing on its homegrown hybrid cloud, AI-enabled automation, ESG, blockchain and quantum solutions and other technologies and services that make IBM, as Krishna put it, “an innovation powerhouse.”
Think 2022 was the first in-person customer and partner conference that IBM has hosted since the Covid pandemic began, but it was considerably smaller than many past such events. Instead, the company plans to take the conference on the road with Think on Tour events hosted in multiple cities worldwide.
Though the format and venues have changed, we expect that the core messages at those global Think conferences will be essentially the same that they were at Think 2022 in Boston. In some ways, IBM is the same enterprise-focused vendor that it has long been – a dependable provider of solutions and consulting services designed to enhance the value and performance of its customers’ businesses.
But in many other ways, IBM now is a very different company and organization than it was before Arvind Krishna was elected CEO. While IBM recognizes its essential value as an innovation powerhouse, it also knows that it cannot know or do everything. More importantly, IBM understands the importance and worth of strategic partners, and the vital advantages that creativity and co-creation can provide enterprise customers.
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