IBM's Continuing Information Infrastructure Journey

IBM held its Information Infrastructure Analyst Summit in Boston last week, building on the initiative it launched a little over a year ago. While the original launch articulated IBM's direction, it was also very product oriented. This time, the Summit was primarily focused on strategy. Thus, product announcements can be separate and distinct, and can serve as instances of how IBM is actually executing according to its announced direction. But a direction -- in the sense of the vision of where a

David Hill

November 2, 2009

9 Min Read
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IBM held its Information Infrastructure Analyst Summit in Boston last week, building on the initiative it launched a little over a year ago. While the original launch articulated IBM's direction, it was also very product oriented. This time, the Summit was primarily focused on strategy. Thus, product announcements can be separate and distinct, and can serve as instances of how IBM is actually executing according to its announced direction. But a direction -- in the sense of the vision of where a company is headed -- is something that can be measured in months, quarters and years, whereas products are a point in time to meet an immediate business need.

Information infrastructure is an interesting term. Wikipedia quotes John Pironti (2006) as saying that an information infrastructure is "all of the people, processes, procedures, tools, facilities, and technology which supports the creation, use, transport, storage, and destruction of information." Not surprisingly, no one organization even in a company as large as IBM can supply all the elements of an information infrastructure. As a result, the IBM Summit was primarily represented by two organizations within IBM: Software Group (SWG) and Systems & Technology Group (STG) (hardware). IBM Global Technology Services (GTS) was also on hand.

Raising the Level of Conversation with an Enterprise
The continuing explosion of information growth creates a set of challenges for companies dealing with the complexity of growth while at the same time continuing ongoing cost reductions. One familiar IT vendor value proposition focuses on how to solve information challenges by "optimizing" the information infrastructure. And that goes far beyond just efficiency. Costs can only be squeezed out for so long before affecting service levels. That much broader and more strategic conversation probably has to take place at the CXO level. Though the decisions that may result from that conversation could trickle down into individual products and services, purchasing those products would be authorized according to overall value, rather than a closer introspection into the cost of particular products or services.

Vendors have long sought to move customer conversations up a notch to a "solutions" sale, which takes into account a business need that is satisfied by a particular technology. Now IBM is raising the conversation to an even higher level in trying to help enterprises understand the business context for what it means to optimize the information infrastructure. When the company succeeds in driving this sort of discussion, it is in a very strong position. Few of its competitors can reasonably argue that they have the breadth and depth of products and services that are necessary to fulfill the requirements. And that conversation takes place when great change is happening, i.e. when there are overall challenges to the information infrastructure. Server virtualization is important but it is no magic bullet. Cloud computing is great, but it is not a panacea. While these may be subsumed as part of an overall solution, successful optimization of the information infrastructure has a much broader business impact.

IBM Is Flexing Its Technology Muscles

Lest we forget, IBM is still a high technology company and proud of it. The focus tends to be on the latest announcements, and they deserve their due attention, but IBM can also leverage the intellectual property capital that it has built up over time. For example, the General Parallel File System (GPFS) is a fundamental centerpiece in IBM's Information Infrastructure strategy. That may seem strange because GPFS is nothing new, having been around since 1995. Moreover, GPFS has experienced its greatest success in high performance computing (HPC), and so some might question its applicability in broader business applications. However, don't be fooled into pigeonholing GPFS into simply the HPC use case.GPFS is also a file management system, and IBM believes the technology distinguishes itself from other clustered file systems by providing concurrent, high-speed file access to applications executing across a wide range of server nodes. The key capabilities of GPFS include storage management, information life cycle management tools, centralized administration and shared access to file systems from remote GPFS clusters.

Please note that while GPFS typically deals with "unstructured" (i.e., for the most part file) data, according to an IBM white paper, GPFS also supports relational databases with structured data that support mission critical online transaction processing systems (OLTP). That is an important point since such environments are block-based, not file based. Although there are probably a number of OLTP applications that will never submit to running under a file system, many more could fall under a file system's control. That issue has been recognized, but never really emphasized, by the industry for a long time.

IBM is using GPFS as a key building block in other technology offerings. For example, GPFS is at the heart of the company's SoFS (Scale out File Services), which can be used to provide the scalability that has hampered NAS deployments in the past. SoFS also incorporates a number of other technologies, such Tivoli Storage Manager, Tivoli Hierarchical Storage Manager and Samba. 

But so what? Why revisit existing technologies? Well, most of the data explosion that companies are creating is file data. That data has to be managed effectively And GPFS can serve as the foundation solution for the following reasons:

    * A true global name space capability has to be put in place to eliminate islands of data that can cripple or even prevent user access to information, as well as the ability to integrate and analyze distributed pieces of information.
    * The technology has to scale to manage what was once considered an unimaginable amount of data -- a petabyte (PB). IBM pointed out that when operating at this scale that 20% of the resources, such as disks or interconnects, might well be unavailable at any one time. That is shocking to think about in what, by definition, must be a high availability (HA) world. But the unavailability of resources does not mean that the user should notice any impact. That comes about through transparent failover from failed components to working components as well as the ability to clean up over time using self-healing capabilities.
    * High speed scanning is necessary for backup, archiving, replication, and other functions.
    * Management requires the effective management of metadata as well as data. Files have useful metadata; blocks have extremely limited metadata. Managing an information infrastructure optimally requires intelligence (i.e., software that can make decisions based upon policy), but that intelligence needs something from which to make its decisions, that is metadata.GPFS is by no means the only current (or likely future) technology IBM has to address these issues but it is the cornerstone for the company's efforts in optimizing the information infrastructure.

Selected Highlights

The Information Infrastructure Summit covered a wide range of IBM strategies and solutions, including three areas we found particularly intriguing:

   1. Cloud Computing -- From IBM's perspective, cloud computing is a consumption model optimized by workload. The company believes in the "have it your way" delivery of cloud computing products and services as private, public, or hybrid. Strategically, IBM believes it will distinguish itself from competitors through higher performance and stronger service level agreements (SLAs) although its reputation and many years of experience in outsourcing cannot hurt either. The focus here is on file-based services based on GPFS.
   2. Virtualization -- Consolidation is a good first step for businesses to consider but IBM has a much broader view.  Emerging management software will leverage virtualization to provide pools of servers that are as easy to manage as single systems, overcoming the crisis in management of today's distributed server sprawl. In addition, new tools will enable the use of virtual resource objects, facilitating software development, versioning, provisioning, and management - including software distribution as virtual appliances. Adding these valuable technologies to an IT infrastructure also adds complexity, and to overcome this IBM will provide integrated IT building blocks that combine hardware with virtualization technologies and management software in a range of standardized offerings.  As these advances and other innovations become deployed, comprehensive service management and service-oriented architecture will be critical to reducing IT cost and improving IT effectiveness.
   3. Archiving -- While the DR550 continues to be available, IBM has  unveiled its eventual successor called the IBM Information Archive, an appliance  that has a NAS look (in addition to retaining its prior look for existing customers). Once again the fingerprints of GPFS are apparent. The new solution's speeds and feeds are important, but the overarching use of a data integration metadata repository is more so. That should enable the better use of sophisticated data analytics technologies, such as for eDiscovery.

In a NutshellIBM's Information Infrastructure Summit was designed to help analysts understand its thinking around current and future trends. Practically speaking, the company hopes to raise the conversation in businesses to the CXO level in order to have their customers understand the business reasons for having to optimize the information infrastructure. This would enable IBM to play off its breadth and depth in both products and services and avoid the individual product function/feature and price/performance comparisons. Individually, these may be more cost efficient, but collectively they may not deliver the overall business value that derives from using an integrated and unified set of products and services. 

I believe that IBM's challenge will be in convincing enterprises of the need for the high-level of conversation. The customers' challenge is to not take a myopic view of what needs to be done, making short-term, suboptimal decisions, but instead to take a longer view on maximizing the value IT can deliver to business processes. Optimizing the information infrastructure obviously will require the use of both current and emerging technologies in such areas as cloud computing, virtualization and archiving. An oldie but goodie technology in GPFS seems to be at the heart of IBM's strategy for the information infrastructure.

Obviously, all the technology pieces are not in place and there will be challenges as IBM continues to sail on its information infrastructure journey. Those issues aside, I believe that everyone, customers and competitors alike, should give due attention to the direction that the company is taking. From what I saw at the Analyst Summit in Boston, IBM is ready for, and focused on, pursuing current and future Information Infrastructure opportunities.  

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