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IBM Software Analyst Summit Trip Report – IBM Connect 2010

Netezza box

Earlier this week, I was at the annual IBM Software Group industry analyst event. It was more emphasis of the move towards solutions-based selling rather than a focus on technologies.

Summary: Solutions, not Products

For every dollar an application vendor gets, there’s five dollars for hardware and services.
–Steve Mills on not being product focused

The IBM Software Group and Systems & Technology Group are even more committed than ever to a go-to-market strategy that favors services over raw products. Instead selling a database, an application server, a provisioning system, an ALM stack, or email, they’re instead selling “solutions” and the industry-tailored consulting and integration work that goes with big time enterprise IT projects.

While there’s no product wrapped around these engagements, there’s plenty of repeatable consultative work, software & hardware, integration, and overall “system” that a customer ends up buying from IBM, along with all the planes full of consultants to help them get it all running and wired up. As a reference, see the interview and demo we did last year with IBM around their Energy and Utilities work.

For IBM, this means a higher-level and higher-dollar engagement with customers. It also, hopefully, enables them to compete better by being the overall controller (and dollar taker) for projects instead of just technology pieces used in that project. The risk is being on the suite side of the classic suite vs. best-of-breed technology battles – companies that focus just on the technology are much more likely to have better innovations than ones that focus on the “whole solution.”

As an exception to this “it’s all the same, really” take, IBM has been doing new things in the analytics, collaborative space (in the Lotus domain), and in “cloud” to a limited extent that are worth paying attention to.

As a technology buyer, the big take-away is that you need only concern yourself with this bundle of efforts from IBM if you have a lot of budget and are in a management position. IBM’s go-to-market, then, has to align with that perception. But, that’s pretty much always been the case.

(To be fair, there is a “General Business” path, which means mid-market to IBM – but that’s usually a bit different than “mainline” IBM.)

Folding in Systems

Expect to see less distinction between hardware and software from IBM.

Added to this folding up of the IBM Software brands and technologies into industry-specific solutions, IBM’s hardware has subtly become more of a component rather than an ends to itself. With the Systems & Technology Group under Software Group leader Steve Mill’s belt, we’re starting to see more and more blurring (or “integration”) between software and hardware. And why not? When you’re selling solutions instead of just SKUs, you market the whole store, not just some item on a self.

Buying a handshake instead of product

Buell Duncan going over IBM marketing

Comparison shopping is difficult; buying decisions are based on trust, not just functionality.

For analysts, all this “solutions” talk becomes very annoying: such a “product-less” approach makes it impossible to compare IBM’s offering to competitors. You can’t load up the feature attributes of an Oracle retail product into a spreadsheet and then try to compare them to an overall project that IBM has done to “transform in-store buying behavior.” Even more frustrating is the fact that there’s little to download and look at on your own: there’s just case studies and marketing write-ups of what the experience is like, at best there’s best practices and “frameworks” if you can hunt them down. And it’s not like you can Yelp up IBM services and see a bunch of 1-5 star ratings with write-ups of past engagements.

The issue with any consultative procurement decision is that you have to trust the consultant, not just the technology they use. I know what infrastructure from Amazon or Rackspace (cloud!) will do without talking to anyone – I can evaluate it – but I have no idea beyond reputation what any given “cloud transformation project” will look like from an organization selling such stuff.

The Benefits

Stability; IT never dies and neither do the maintenance payments; buying a hole not a shovel.

Still, for all the turmoil going on in IT – introduced by theoretic disruption from cloud and the consumerization of IT lead by innovations from public web companies (Facebook, Google, etc.) and Apple and it’s fast-followers – the flexibility that comes with the silly-putty solutions approach is a good way to hedge out and capture as many dollars as possible.

If you’re no longer the part of the driving force of technology innovation (which I would argue is a position most enterprise technology vendors are in), your next best bet is to help your high-dollar clients do two things:

  • Maintain their legacy IT, at the same time as.
  • Figure out how to migrate it to whatever helpful innovations are pulled from The New Innovators.

On those fronts, IBM is clearly positioned to continue squeezing cash from the legacy stone – all of the tech vendor consolidation we’re still in the thick of has helped whack down the options to a nice hegemony. And when it comes to pulling in innovation from elsewhere, IBM is one of the quickest and earliest out there: Lotus has sucked in virtually all of the concepts from the Web and Enterprise 2.0 worlds; IBM’s ability to suck in analytics and big data functionality has been silently astonishing; and while their cloud technologies and go-to-market make them a bit of a cloud apostate, they’ve secured an iron-grip on “private cloud” along with other vendors scrambling to escape cloud disruption (how do you sell a luxury mainframe box or storage array when you can get Amazon CPU & disk at pennies on the dollar?).

Another angle is that many industries have not applied IT to all parts of their business simply because it wasn’t possible. The main conceit of IBM’s Smart Planet theory is that most everything in business will be directly involved with technology somehow, if not “on the network.” Software will be in everything, and everything will be networked together. This kind of environment means that everything becomes something that IBM can get involved in developing and managing. Think of the jump from manual labor on assembly lines to robotic labor – or from filing cabinets to databases.

For buyers, this approach means that in theory they get better results, not just a pile of IT that doesn’t work together. The promise of IBM having industry experts on the pay-roll fits into that, and IBM’s service arm, of course, means that The IBM Company has more to offer than a toolbox. And as a company that’s about to be 100 years old, there’s not much to worry about with respect to someone acquiring IBM and futzing about with the portfolio.

The Problems

Selling what works over what’s new; making things better not inventing new things; it’s expensive.

A strategy based on solutions typically relies on the status quo in the market. A repeatble & profitable consultative engagement means you’re looking to re-use knowledge and work from previous engagement rather than re-inventing the wheel each time. On the other hand, for IBM’s industry-specific approach, you have to get into those industries before they commoditize and drop the value of any given IT project. Put another way: if you look at the margin havoc commitization in the data center has done over the recent past (open source [cheap/free middleware] and now cloud [cheap servers]), you can see the kind of market IBM wants to avoid.

Each of the industries IBM is selling solutions to can’t cotton on to the idea that innovative technology should make things drastically cheaper, not expensive enough for IBM to be interested. Indeed, I would theorize that much of the reason IBM wants to look beyond the IT department for sales is because the IT department has crap-budget now and far into the foreseeable future.

If “open source” actually got a foot-hold into the application space in the same way it did in operating systems and middleware, things would look hairy. Another risk is low-priced SaaS. Much of IBM’s strategy depends on massive amount of on-premise IT and networks. Indeed, in many cases this is inescapable: think of waste water management, city-wide video surveillance, and other things that actually involve physical things…all nodes in a network, though. This approach leaves IBM just the high-end of the market that has enough budget to avoid compromising by buying off-the-shelf SaaS: they want their own IT, customized and managed by them.

What comes with that is being cut-off from disruptive innovation. Instead of creating those innovations yourself, you’re left to either buy them or become the high-priced plumber for wiring them into businesses. IBM won’t invent an iPad, but they might help you establish secure practices and connections for your workforce in using them. They call this being a “fast follower,” and, really, it’s how most big, successful technology companies end up.


Analytics, Cloud, Collaborative, Social Business – all IBM technology areas that have interesting stuff going on.

Tiger Team Panelists

All of that aside, IBM did speak to actual technologies in several key areas:

  • Analytics and Big Data – covered extensively here at RedMonk, there’s no end of technologies to help people better understand what’s going on in any given environment or context, tune their ongoing business to things that worked or didn’t work in the past, and try to start predicting what the most profitable next move is. The easiest examples here are pulling in (near) realtime data from high-volume retail to drive pricing, inventory control, product placement, individually tailored offers, community driven procurement & brand management (think Amazon reviews, BazaarVoice, and social media as better junk mail) and other “program the consumer” efforts to separate the sucker from their dollar more effectively and quicker than ever. There’s also high scale efforts like smart grids and such. The point is that there’s a huge pool of analytic horse-power previous available only to spies and scientists that have attractive business applications. One slide estimated that all this analytics stuff was a $205B opportunity for IBM.
  • Collaborative & white-collar productivity – hidden behind all this solutions talk, Lotus has still been delivering straight-up applications for awhile. Their portfolio is very Enterprise 2.0 heavy now with things way beyond Notes. While there may be a question about how much it costs vs. other offerings, the functionality seems genuinely helpful.
  • Cloud – while IBM (and other elder companies) have a funky notion of what cloud is (it mostly involved calling them for a bunch of custom work) compare to just signing up with a public cloud vendor, they’ve been doing much in this area. The fact that they estimate cloud as an $181B opportunity for them speaks volumes to how real they think cloud is…but you can spend many tedious hours debating what you end up with afterwards. Indeed, I’ve had many conversations recently about companies having a difficult time figuring out why they should bother with cloud versus just doing more virtualization optimization and slapping up some self-service IT request portals on-top of it. Hopefully I’ll write-up that soon.
  • Social Business (for lack of a better phrase) – while they didn’t call this out as a top level thing, much of the technologies and project IBM talked about amount to getting companies involved in social media, usually along the lines of keeping engaged with customers (brand management, etc.) but also in driving business. Here, what most people mean is: if everyone spends all their time in Facebook (and sometimes Twitter), any given business has to figure out how to engage with that channel just like they did with TV and phone systems

As mentioned above, the technology issue for IBM is that any given new innovation, on it’s own, in technology is probably not going to bring in the revenue bucks IBM cares about. They need to go after huge chunks of various markets and industries, not just the tools used in those industries. “Solutions,” indeed.

Disclosure: IBM is a client and paid for hotel at the event.

Categories: Conferences, Enterprise Software.

Comment Feed

8 Responses

  1. wonderful post Cote. I think you nailed a few things as ever. couple of typos, but that's redmonk i guess. "loose" for lose and repeatble. now- the great thing about this post is that it talks down some things i can now talk to. i got up for the "annual sandy carter 7am dear me that's eye wateringly breakfast talk" and she specifically talked to selling sub $50k deals – that's a strategic priority. If you ever want to know what Steve Mills think is critically important then look where he is employing Carter- at this point channel sales. IBM doesn't get out of bed for less than 50k- its a high end super model… but it has partners that will, and if they won't, it will find other partners that will. In terms of innovation – I wouldn't underplay things like IBM's Watson natural language engine – natural language is the perfect user interface. Its also worth considering systems innovation- in Big Data memory, storage and processor innovation is going to be a BFD. etc. Also your "silently astonishing" quote points to some real innovation, imho.
    anyhow thanks for this. i can follow up with a post monday.

  2. eye-wateringly early….

  3. Seems like they paid you for the unbiased analysis to spin a technology co into a biz co with no biz domain expertise.

  4. Derik: yeah, that's the part that's difficult to evaluate, and hence the trust vs. functionality comparison. IBM will have to prove out their industry-specific knowledge. For us analysts, they trot out industry experts in their employ, but like I keep saying, it's difficult for us to evaluate that beyond talking with companies that have worked with IBM along those lines: which would be great to do more of, have some?

  5. James: all true, including typos. The red squiggly and Twitter are all I have! Part of the issue is also sorting out how IBM can sell such a grand vision at $50k and below. What’s being cut? And if nothing is being cut, why does it cost more than $50k. That’s not really the right way of looking at it at all, but there is something interesting going on there.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] the annual Software Group meetup for industry analysts that follow IBM. See some coverage here by Coté. IBM’s Software portfolio is insanely big these days, so its hard to know where to […]

  2. […] the annual Software Group meetup for industry analysts that follow IBM. See some coverage here by Coté. IBM’s Software portfolio is insanely big these days, so its hard to know where to […]