IBM and the Long Game: Cooperation, not Dominance

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    IBM is one of the more interesting companies to watch in the computing industry right now. I know this may seem odd to some considering all the noise surrounding Apple, Amazon, Cisco and the like, but in a very quiet, methodical way, IBM is setting itself up to become a very solid, although certainly not dominant, player in the field.

    To be sure, IBM’s financial results have been less than stellar over the past year or so, but I can’t really speak to that because, frankly, finance and budgets make my head spin. However, I will point out that lengthy periods of financial under-performance are not unusual for companies in transition, and quite often they are a sign of adaptability in rapidly changing markets, as opposed to firms that try to squeeze every last dime from legacy product lines only to realize too late that the rest of the world has passed them by.

    And IBM is clearly in transition – again. Those who are too young to realize that you once had to wear a jacket and tie to the office, or that you even had to go to an office at all, probably don’t appreciate the dominance that IBM enjoyed in the computing world in the 1960s and ‘70s. IBM was the undisputed leader back then, with the best hardware, the best software, the best support and the best sales and distribution channels. The hard lesson came in 1980 when IBM licensed PC DOS from Microsoft on a non-exclusive basis, which allowed Microsoft to then license the product to other hardware manufacturers, and the rest is history. Lower cost rivals started to undercut IBM in both office and home computing, and the first chink in a heretofore unchinkable armor was made.

    To its credit, IBM incorporated this lesson deeply into its culture and now no longer seeks to own IT but to carve out a strong position amid a thriving ecosystem of hardware and software platforms – with more emphasis on the software and services these days than the hardware. A case in point is its latest tie-up with cloud storage provider Box. The idea is to utilize Box as the bulk storage solution for a broad range of IBM services, such as analytics, security and even its own cloud. Sales and marketing are handled in tandem or independently, and both companies get something they need: a highly scalable cloud partner for IBM and a strong link to enterprise workloads for Box.

    This comes despite IBM’s efforts to develop its own backup and storage platforms. The Spectrum Project is aimed at optimizing backup for physical, storage and cloud environments as a way to support unified, hybrid infrastructure in the enterprise. And by, again, tapping third-party cloud providers like CenterGrid, the system can be tailored to a broad range of industry verticals that are utilizing Big Data and mobile apps for services like parking-spot location in increasingly crowded urban areas.

    The company is also tapping emerging technologies like containers – again, not to own the space but to leverage third-party development into its own infrastructure and software/services portfolios. The new IBM Containers platform, based on Docker and housed on the Bluemix PaaS architecture, seeks to provide a faster, more agile workspace for analytics and other services over distributed, hybrid environments. Users will also be able to fold additional solutions into the mix, including Cloud Foundry and OpenStack, plus a broad collection of third-party platforms through IBM’s participation in the Open Container Platform (OCP) initiative.

    Business Strategy

    And speaking of analytics, IBM recently made a major commitment to Apache Spark as it seeks to bring its legacy Linux and DB2 products into the era of Big Data. The company will offer a Spark-as-a-Service product, again through Bluemix, and it is earmarking more than 3,500 members of its research staff to develop new Spark products. As well, the company has donated its SystemML machine learning system to the Apache Spark community in an effort to heighten the platform’s capabilities in device-driven data management. As well, the company is launching a learning program with a goal to teach more than 1 million data scientists and engineers how to use Spark.

    Clearly, IBM has its fingers in a lot of pies, and not all of them will pull out a plum. But by diversifying itself across a range of disciplines and then resisting the temptation to dominate everything it touches, the company is setting itself up for the long game.

    This is not necessarily a “winning” strategy, even if there is such a thing as winning in today’s diverse and dynamic IT market, but it does provide a pretty good hedge against losing.

    Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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