Every year I attend IBM software analyst meeting. It is an opportunity to gain a snap shot of what the leadership team is thinking and saying. Since I have had the opportunity to attend many of these events over the year, it is always instructive to watch the evolution of IBM’s software business over the years.
So, what did I take away from this year’s conference? In many ways, it was not that much difference in what I experienced last year. And I think that is good. When you are a company of the size of IBM you can’t lurch from one strategy to the next and expect to survive. One of the advantages that IBM has in the market is that has a well developed roadmap that it is in the process of executing on. It is not easy to execute when you have as many software components as IBM does in its software portfolio.
While it isn’t possible to discuss all that I learned in my various discussions with IBM executives, I’d like to focus on IBM’s solutions strategy and its impact on the software portfolio. From my perspective, IBM has made impressive strides in enforcing a common set of services that underlie its software portfolio. It has been a complicated process that has taken decades and is still a work in progress. The result required that all of the business units within software are increasingly working together to provide underlying services to each other. For example, Tivoli provides management services to Rational and Information Management provides data management services to Tivoli. WebSphere provides middleware and service orientation to all of the various business units. Because of this approach, IBM is better able to move to a solutions focus.
It’s about the solutions.
In the late 1990s IBM got out of the applications business in order to focus on middleware, data management, and systems management. This proved to be a successful strategy for the next decade. IBM made a huge amount of money selling WebSphere, DB2, and Tivoli offerings for SAP and Oracle platforms. In addition, Global Services created a profitable business implementing these packaged applications for enterprises. But the world has begun to change. SAP and Oracle have both encroached on IBM’s software business. Some have criticized IBM for not being in the packaged software business. While IBM is not going into the packaged software business, it is investing a vast amount of money, development effort, and marketing into the “solutions” business.
How is the solutions business different than a packaged application? In some ways they are actually quite similar. Both provide a mechanism for codifying best practices into software and both are intended to save customers time when they need to solve a business problem. IBM took itself out of the packaged software business just as the market was taking off. Companies like SAP, Oracle, Seibel, PeopleSoft and hundreds of others were flooding the market with tightly integrated packages. In this period of the early 1990s, IBM decided that it would be more lucrative to partner with these companies that lacked independent middleware and enabling technologies. IBM decided that it would be better off enabling these packaged software companies than competing in the packaged software market.
This turned out to be the right decision for IBM at the time. The packaged software it had developed in the 80s was actually holding it back. Therefore, without the burden of trying to fix broken software, it was able to focus all of its energy and financial strength on its core enabling software business. But as companies like Oracle and SAP cornered the packaged software market and began to expand to enabling software, IBM began to evolve its strategy. IBM’s strategy is a hybrid of the traditional packaged software business and a solutions business based on best practices industry frameworks.
So, there are two components in IBM’s solutions strategy – vertical packaged solutions that can be applied across industries and solution frameworks that are focused on specific vertical markets.
Horizontal Packages. The horizontal solutions that IBM is offerings have been primarily based on acquisitions it has made over the past few years. While at first glance they look like any other packaged software, there is a method to what IBM has purchased. Without exception, these acquisitions are focused on providing packaged capabilities that are not specific to any market but are intended to be used in any vertical market. In essence, the packaged solutions that IBM has purchased resemble middleware more than end-to-end solutions. For example, Sterling Commerce, which IBM purchased in August 2010, is a cross channel commerce platform. It purchased Coremetrics in June, provides web analytics and bought Unica for marketing automation of core business processes. While each of these is indeed packaged, they reach represent a component of a solution that can be applied across industries.
Vertical Packages. IBM has been working on its vertical market packaging for more than a decade through its Business Services Group (BSG). IBM has taken its best practices from various industry practices and codified these patterns into software components. These components have been unified into solution frameworks for industries such as retail, banking, and insurance. While this has been an active approach with the Global Services for many years, there has been a major restructuring in IBM’s software organization this past year. In January, the software group split into two groups: one focused on middleware and another focused on software solutions. All of the newly acquired horizontal packages provide the underpinning for the vertical framework-based software solutions.
Leading with the solution. IBM software has changed dramatically over the past several decades. The solutions focus does not stop with the changes within the software business units itself; it extends to hardware as well. Increasingly, customers want to be able to buy their solutions as a package without having to buy the piece parts. IBM’s solution focus that encompasses solutions, middleware, appliances, and hardware is the strategy that IBM will take into the coming decade.
Every year at about this time I attend IBM Software Group IT Industry Analyst meeting. This meeting is attended by about 90 industry analysts and about three times that number of IBM software group leaders, managers, and support staff. It is quite the event! While I can’t possibly talk about everything I am hearing, but I will give you an overview of the events and some of the highlights.
Since I have been traveling to a lot of analyst conferences lately, I can compare the approach of different market leaders. Next week, for example, I will be at EMC’s analyst meeting and in early December I will attend SAP’s analyst event.
But I digress. Here is what I came away thinking about IBM and its software strategy. One of my first thoughts is to compare Microsoft’s SOA/BPM event the other week to IBM’s. One of the big differences is that while Microsoft is announcing new long term initiatives (Oslo) for SOA, IBM is executing on a long term plan that has been in the works for more than five years. I think the best way to understand IBM’s software DNA is to look at the perspective of its leader.
I start with an observation that is actually not new for me. Steve Mills, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Software Group has been the force behind herding the multiple business areas within the software group to have a common set of underlying services. While this may make perfect sense, it not an easy achievement for a company with thousands of software offerings across hundreds of different business units. As an example, when I first met Steve he was grappling with a few hundred different data stores under hundreds of different products. Somehow he managed to get all of these groups to use DB2 as their underlying database engine. But that was just the start. Steve’s next big leap was to move out of the packaged software market and into the middleware and horizontal software market.
I thought Steve’s remarks were quite insightful: In essence, Mills pointed out that IBM’s focus with its horizontal software approach is on what he calls industry frameworks. With this approach he believes that IBM is armed with the right stuff to focus on what he calls “customer business outcomes.”
Rather than packaged software these frameworks are a combination of best practices and business services. For example, in the financial services industry these services would include financial services for payments platforms, high performance event processing, and large scale data mining and analytics. Therefore, the overarching strategy for the software business is to provide the building blocks that apply to business requirements across business domains.
Mills contents that the real benefit that customers are looking for is to gaining operational efficient and innovative business performance from this horizontal. He contends that the greatest benefit from a growth and cost containment basis comes from a focus on harmonizing business practices across the organization. Simply automating and re-automating vertical slides such as customer relationship systems, booking keeping, inventory, and the like not where the opportunity is. Could this be a swipe at companies like Oracle and SAP?
Like Microsoft, IBM is moving its focus to process and models-based approaches but with a horizontal flavor. Mills believes that transactions, messaging, information integration, management of an increasingly virtualized enviornment, data management, and collaboration are at the heart of the requirements to make this vision a reality. This is where IBM software is putting its money and its bets.
So, here are the five things I learned from this meeting (I probably learned more but I know that people who read blogs have a short attention span…):
1. IBM is focused horizonally and will not get into the packaged software market. The exception will be software packages that focuses on more horizontal requirements.
2. IBM is reinventing Lotus into a collaboration platform. There are many exciting initiatives unfolding in Lotus that focus on a true distributed platform. I expect to see some important Software as a Service initiatives come out of the new Lotus. I would like to see IBM move faster into Software as a Service.
3. Information Management is an increasingly strong part of the IBM platform that transcends the database. IBM is doing a good job at integrating a large number of acquisitions into a substantial SOA based information platform.
4. IBM is doing SOA well. Clearly, the investment in SOA is paying off for IBM. It has more than 5700 SOA engagements under its belt. It is now able to leverage its expertise across key verticals to present a sound strategy to customers.
5. Now, I don’t want you to think that everything is perfect at IBM. There are still areas of concern. For example, the Tivoli organization has plenty of work to do to explain its portfolio to the market and give customers better techniques to get started without getting indigestion . Like other parts of IBM software, it is, in essence a software company in its own right with hundreds of products that don’t always work together as they should. Likewise, IBM Websphere is a huge set of technologies — some better integrated that others. Sometimes customers get overwhelmed with the portfolio.
Trying to reduce IBM software strategy to under 1,000 words is a task few humans should undertake (without a stiff drink of something). I have left out a lot — and there is plenty to say. For example, I haven’t talked at all about the herculean task that Danny Sabbah (I have added a link to Amy Wohl’s blog. She has a good interview with Danny from the same meeting) has taken on to reinvigorate Rational. (Yes, he is making progress. The direction is well conceived — it will just take some time). I also have not talked about the important Express software platforms that are probably IBM’s best kept secret. There are a series of impressive product offerings designed for ease of installation and ease of use required by the mid-market. I always wonder why it is o.k. for big companies to have to do things the hard way (but that’s just me…).
I guess this means that I have to write more about IBM’s software strategy in future entries…