IBM Wants a Smarter Planet? Sure, But With an Edge

IBM's 'Edge' conference earlier this month was not just about rolling out new product announcements, but demonstrated again IBM's renewed fervor for and commitment to a strong storage portfolio. 

Author(s): Mark Peters

Published: June 21, 2013

OK, so IBM isn’t actually asserting the world is flat, but it did hold its second ‘Edge’ event earlier this month (as I’ve said before, I like writing about these big industry events after the Kool Aid has had a chance to leave my system!). Edge started life as very much a storage event last year with somewhere around 2000 attendees, but this year had grown in both coverage (still with storage – rightly! - at the center of things) and also attendance, with close to 5000 end-users on hand at one end of the Vegas strip while HP’s Discover was a few stop-lights away at the other end.

The Edge event was very much focused on users and practical implementations, so much of the material (or at least the context and content) was familiar to those of us that get pre-briefed and kept up to date. Of course, there were still plenty of specific announcements, but it’s the big themes that interest me. So let’s get to it. After the [what is becoming requisite] loud start – in this case a rock group (don’t touch that dial: yes, this is IBM with its corporate tie loosened) – there were the [also requisite] mentions of a focus on data, the arrival of software-defined environments and the need for ‘smarter computing’ in general. But, the first specific technology to get a mention was…..flash. Yup, the world of IT and storage is ultimately all about economics, and since (as IBM – rightly IMHO - put forth in its Flash Ahead initiative this last April) flash is all about economics then ergo the world is all about flash! Or as Ambuj Goyal, the disarming and knowledgeable leader of IBM’s storage division, jokingly put it “The answer is flash…now, what’s the question?”!  And flash did indeed get a lot of attention – one of the on-stage clients called it “the answer to the poorly written software we’ve had for ages.” While this won’t win that particular gentleman many friends in his software team it did strike a chord with some interesting research IBM showed; quoting from its regular CEO Study, IBM showed a chart that asked CEOs to rank the most strategic factors/components impacting organizations – this covered such things as people skills, macro-economics, market factors and so on. Back in 2004 “Technology Factors” was number 6, but it has climbed steadily over recent years to be #1 in 2012. I hear a sigh of relief from the software team, since I’m sure they count in this respect!? However the takeaway is that technology is absolutely crucial.

IBM managed to keep one foot in both today’s world and one foot in the emerging infrastructures. So, for example, pragmatically it pointed to having sold 23,000 StorWize SVC/7000 systems, as well as continued development and traction for the DS8K, XIV, Tivoli Storage Manager and LTFS products. On the more aspirational side was both the massive focus and investment in all-things-flash and some well executed (self-serving of course, but that’s to be expected!) definitions of various stages for software-defined storage (SDS). By the way I liked the way it started with some of the less embracing SDS definitions – “snake oil” and “a marketing theme for promoting storage technologies” before debunking such easy dismissal and demonstrating the specific real and potential values….assuming of course you buy into its definition!   

Let’s turn back to trying to boil down a takeaway. For that I want to return to flash….but not as a product; instead I want to talk about flash as a descriptor of attitude and demeanor. Please don’t panic – I’m not about to describe IBM as flashy. Not just yet. However, and despite the mixed results it’s had in the storage arena for some time, there was a palpable ‘confidence of maturity’ from the whole IBM team. Plus I talked to more users in 2 days than I could shake a stick at – and they were believers. Indeed I was lucky enough to moderate a large session (on, yup, you guessed it – flash!) and interview senior executives from Sprint and SciQuest who had tremendously impressive stories of business impact to relate). I was thinking for days of what really struck me from Edge and then I realized it was to be found in another of Ambuj’s one-liners: he was pointing out that storage is no longer the “peripheral” that it once was – he, of course, was talking about its importance to users and their infrastructure (and there's no doubt, by the way, that the whole move to convergence mitigates in favor of those organizations that manage to have more complete offerings)….but it occurred to me that the essence of that statement also applies to how I’m now perceiving storage as a business for IBM. No longer peripheral. Sure, you can aim to build a smarter planet, but IBM has realized it needs a storage edge to do that.           

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Mark Peters is an ESG senior analyst focused on storage systems. His particular areas of emphasis are block storage; virtualized storage; all types of solid-state storage; and the challenges of power, cooling, and space efficiency in data centers. Mark has more than 25 years of data storage industry experience and has held senior management roles in sales, marketing, product management, business development, and customer intimacy in the U.S. and internationally.

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