24 Mar IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Makes Her Case At InterConnect Why IBM Is The Right Business Platform

This past week I attended IBM’s premier cloud and cognitive conference, InterConnect 2017, held in Las Vegas, NV. The event is IBM’s chance to showcase their newest advancements in cloud technology, with around 25,000 developers, clients, and partners in attendance. Attendees have access to 2,000 sessions, labs and certifications—it’s really quite a happening. Ginni Rometty’s keynote address on Tuesday was a big highlight, standard big enterprise company fare, giving us a good glimpse into Rometty’s differentiated view for the company moving forward, as well as providing some interesting partner testimonials. Here’s my rundown of here keynote, along with some opinion and implications on what was said.

3 Clearly Defined Tenets: “Enterprise Strong”, “Data First”, “Cognitive at the Core”

I attend many events, around 50 a year, where the CEO gets on stage and gives their spiel. One of the most frustrating ones are where the CEO is cryptic on why they think they are different and will win. Many times it’s bad advice from corporate marketing or comms that drives this, trying to be coy and cute, forcing the audience to parse words. Well, Ginni was absolutely clear and overt on why she thinks IBM is the right choice, and I really appreciated that. To be clear, the team and I haven’t rooted through every claim made this week at the show and my comment is on clarity of communication.

Rometty started off the keynote by enumerating 3 main tenets of why IBM is the right platform for, in her words, “a new era of business.” Firstly, she emphasized that IBM is “enterprise strong”—meaning it has a strong public cloud designed for industries, it provides choice and consistency as an industrialized hybrid, it is more secure than on-prem options, and has a clear pathway, or “pipeline,” towards the future. She touted IBM’s geographic scale—51 cloud datacenters, in 20 countries around the world (including the newly announced China datacenter through a partnership with the Wanda group), and data sovereignty. This is a clear shot at Google Cloud and Amazon.com AWS who don’t offer a hybrid cloud and Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise who don’t have a public cloud. Rometty makes a good point on this one, but I would stay away from the number of datacenters in the future because in the end, I think Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google will likely end up with more. This also provides separation from Oracle Cloud who is in catch-up mode.

The second tenet she emphasized that IBM’s cloud is built on a “data-first” architecture. She stressed that unlike other companies who are seeking to democratize data for profit, IBM is more interested in extracting data and getting insights out of it. She spoke of the necessity of data diversity (having public, private, and licensed data, with the ability to combine those together as necessary), and data control with locality (location, who’s using it, and what for) and isolation (so data doesn’t co-mingle). This is a clear shot at Google Cloud and maybe even Amazon.com AWS to sow seeds of doubt that enterprise data could be mined for commercial reasons and of course the fact that neither have private clouds. I’m not necessarily bought into the “mining” part as I’m not aware of AWS or Google doing this, but need to dig into it.

The third and final tenet was that IBM’s cloud is “cognitive at the core”. Rometty explained that in IBM’s view, “cognitive is not a feature, it is foundational” to their Cloud, “embodied” by Watson, IBM’s AI supercomputer system. She emphasized the need for a cloud with a full range of cognitive abilities—machine learning, AI, and cognitive, with humanlike abilities to see, hear, feel, and read. Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon.com AWS are all making these points as well and this point is really calling out Oracle Cloud, Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. This is fair and IBM’s Quantum Computing cloud service, called IBM Q, highlights IBM will keep investing if not leading new compute models.

While Rometty didn’t call it out, and I wish she had, the IBM POWER platform is a great cognitive platform, if not the best out there. The IBM POWER team identified the need for and implemented acceleration before anyone else in the industry and are already on their third generation with the highest speed accelerator interconnects (ie NVLink) and a coherent architecture ( ie CAPI) that can share main memory with the accelerator. And as we have seen, the best of breed machine learning uses accelerators like GPUs and FPGAs that POWER was thoughtfully designed for. It’s not just about hardware, it’s about software, too, as IBM has introduced PowerAI, basically a Swiss-Army knife of tools to develop enterprise AI applications.

I was glad to see these three pillars—”enterprise strong”, “data first”, and “cognitive at the core”—communicated so clearly. As I said before, at some of the events I’ve attended in the past, it wasn’t really clear why the company thought they were the best, but Rometty’s delivery was excellent, and she really spoke to the enterprise.

Partner testimonials

Standard fare in enterprise technology keynotes is to pull what are considered successful companies and famous people on stage to talk about what the companies are doing together, and that’s precisely what Rometty did next. Now, for these testimonials to be effective, they really need to be more than just name-dropping—they have to reinforce the company’s mission statement and overall message of the keynote. In my opinion, IBM did a pretty good job on that front.

AT&T’s Randall Stephenson

First off, Rometty introduced Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T. One of the biggest threats to carriers like AT&T in this day and age is that they get left behind and become the “dumb pipe”. As a result, some are getting into enterprise services (like Deutsche Telekom), and others, like AT&T, are getting more and more into content. Most are diving into IoT services which I think they have a good shot at.

Stephenson made the point that more and more media is being consumed via mobile devices, while the industries are not necessarily moving as fast as they should be to match this new demand. To help alleviate that, he mentioned AT&T’s recently announced acquisition of Time Warner—a merger that he believes will speed the new consumption models along by allowing AT&T to “curate, format, and develop” content specifically for a mobile environment. He brought up an an interesting point—while typically a lot of new technology begins in the enterprise, and migrates to the consumer market time, cloud-based video streaming has really happened in the reverse. Stephenson went on to talk about the work AT&T and IBM is doing together, saying that the “poster child” was their joint client work with the federal government, using IBM Watson, intelligence services, and security services. He offered the specific example of a mobile handset that the government is using, which is secured by IBM MaaS360 technology.

AT&T is viewed as successful, but I would have liked to see Stephenson talk less about AT&T and more about what he is doing together with IBM. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking of both AT&T and Verizon who proudly got on-stage getting awards in Austin at the 2016 OpenStack Summit and said they were betting the farm on OpenStack and that conversation didn’t involve IBM. I’ll have to dig into that one further.

Salesforce’s Mark Benioff

Rometty’s next guest was Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce, one of the most successful SaaS companies on the playing field right now. Rometty spoke of the benefits of Einstein (Salesforce’s AI service) and Watson coming together, and the troves of different kinds of data both companies bring to the table. I can’t yet say I fully understand the power behind Einstein and Watson and need to do more research on it. They gave an example of their joint client KONE, an elevator and escalator company, that is now connecting all of their products to the Internet of Things with sensors. Using the data collected from that, Watson is helping keep track of predictive fail rates of these elevators and escalators—at which point Salesforce swoops in with their CRM (customer relations management) information, and facilitates the deployment of repairs in real time. It’s unclear the value add of Einstein in this case, but again, I need to dig deeper and maybe I’ll find it.

Rometty and Benioff also discussed the future of AI, and its inevitable impact on the workforce, and Rometty posited that while the transformation will have some impact on jobs, AI will solve many more problems than it creates. They emphasized the two companies’ joint commitment to skills training and development for the new era of AI, as well as the necessity for transparency with their clients about when and how their data is being put to use by Watson or Einstein. I really appreciated that both Benioff and Rometty actually discussed solutions to the skills problems and are actually doing something about it. Most companies and leaders are skirting the deep discussion. With 5,000 shared clients, I see a lot of overlap between them and IBM—it makes sense that they’re collaborating.

H&R Block’s Bill Cobb

I’ve seen the many Watson and H&R Block commercials and always wondered if there were substance behind it. There is.

Next up was President and CEO of H&R Block, Bill Cobb. Seeking a more engaging client experience after a somewhat lackluster tax season, the tax preparation powerhouse sought out IBM to create a joint solution—keeping the taxpayer at the center of the experience, but bringing in Watson to help ensure the best possible outcomes. Cobb walked us through an impressive demonstration, showing how Watson, along with a H&R tax professional walks a customer through their taxes, to find all possible deductions and credits. One of the most impressive things to me is how quickly this collaboration came to fruition—from initial conception back in June of last year, to development, to already being in use for this current tax season. Of course it’s still being refined—but with every single tax return Watson assists with, it gains data and learns a little bit more about helping clients.

RBC’s Bruce Ross

The next testimonial came from Bruce Ross, Head of Technology and Operations for the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). I’ve written about the RBC before, the changing landscape of financial services, and the pioneering work they’re doing with Vidyo—I see them as a real tech trailblazer. They’re the largest bank in Canada, and boast more than 16 million million clients worldwide, from all sectors. Ross explained that there were currently more than 30 IBM Bluemix cloud platform applications in RBC’s production environment today—applications that Ross considers to be “mission-critical.” He emphasized that anything new that RBC is doing currently is “not just born in the cloud—it is the cloud”. I was blown away with the number of new Bluemix cloud apps are in-flight and this further reinforces just how strong IBM is in financial services. IBM should trot out RBC whenever they can given just how ahead of the curve technologically and innovative they are as a bank.

Girls Who Code’s Reshma Suajani

The final guest of the keynote was Reshma Suajani, founder of Girls Who Code, a summer camp program designed to educate girls in computer programming—a field currently dominated by a predominantly male workforce. Over the last five years, Girls Who Code has taught over 40,000 girls, in all 50 states. IBM runs some camps, and the girls are being educated in IBM Watson APIs, and the Bluemix cloud platform, using IBM technology (in Suajani’s words) to “build incredible things.” This is a really neat program, and the partnership is a great example of IBM’s commitment to addressing gender inequality issues, as well as their commitment to help prepare the workforce with the skills they need for the new era of AI. My favorite part was when Rometty offered these high-schoolers on stage an internship, which she very quickly reinforced was “paid”. The girls on stage were genuinely surprised at the offer and reinforced just how good Rometty is on stage.

Wrapping up

As I said before, I really appreciate the clarity of Rometty’s main message: that IBM is the right choice for businesses, because of three main attributes—it is “enterprise strong”, “built on a data-first architecture”, and “cognitive to the core”. Sometimes the messages of these keynotes can get muddled, but that was not the case here.

AT&T’s testimonial easily lent itself to the enterprise strong argument, and the Salesforce and H&R Block segments highlighted both IBM’s data-first approach as well as the powerful cognitive capabilities Watson brings to the table. Overall, I thought all of the testimonials were well-chosen, and did a good job of fleshing out the enterprise-friendly picture Rometty was trying to project. IBM certainly faces stiff competition in the cloud arena, from Google Cloud, Amazon.om AWS, Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft Azure, and Oracle—but I think they did a good job with this keynote in positioning themselves as a real enterprise player. My team and I will be picking through all the details over the next few months and weigh in on most every relevant claim that was made at the show.