How IBM can avoid the abyss

If Big Blue still has a future, it's in cloud.


(Image: ZDNet)

I tell a lot of people that although I have been out of the company almost five years -- and the last company I worked at was Microsoft -- I still identify myself as an ex-IBMer.

There is a certain conditioning that occurs when one spends any length of time at some companies. Microsoft certainly rubbed off on me, and it was an experience I will never forget, but it was at IBM that I fully accepted and embraced my profession.

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At IBM, I truly learned to become a trusted advisor. Sure, I had been in independent consulting for quite a few years, and I had also spent some time at Unisys, but it was learning IBM's consultative methodology at Global Technology Services and working on some very large datacenter consolidations and business continuity engagements that turned me into a systems architect-type.

Going to work at IBM was a childhood dream. Twenty-somethings and perhaps even 30-somethings may not understand this today, but there was a time when the letters "IBM" were synonymous with computers. Computers and IBM were one and the same.

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From the 1960s up to most of the 1980s, in the business world you didn't say "computer" you said IBM. Its closest competitors -- Unisys, Hewlett-Packard, Control Data, Wang and Digital Equipment Corporation -- were far, far smaller and less impactful.

During that period, IBM had more weight in the industry than Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon combined wield today. It was essentially a monopoly. Every large corporation used IBM systems -- as did the whole of the US Government and any entity worth mentioning.

It sounds ludicrous today, but it's true. Every other kid wanted to be a professional baseball player, a doctor, or a lawyer. I wanted to go to work for IBM.

So, I have a very soft spot for Big Blue. And I have watched it mature and evolve and face paradigm shifts that have caused many of its competitors to go extinct.

During the 1990s, IBM faced an existential crisis similar to the one it is facing now. In July 1993, the company laid off approximately 60,000 workers because its mainframe business at the time was shrinking and the PC industry it created in 1981 was dominated by Intel x86 clones from companies like Compaq, Dell, and many, many white boxers.

IBM hasn't figured out how to capture revenue from SMBs. Unless a deal is worth at least $1 million, and realistically $10 million, sales guys at IBM don't tend to get motivated.

There was a real possibility that IBM's history might have ended in the mid-1990s. But instead, it pivoted. It moved into software and services with strategic acquisitions. It embraced Linux and Open Source. It got out of desktop PCs and moved into laptops. It became a boutique contract semiconductor manufacturer.

It also turned the clunky mainframe and the RS/6000 into premium high-performance computing and transactional server brands, System z and POWER, although its overall hardware business relative to software and services became relatively small, closer to 20 percent of its annual revenue. But it wasn't shabby.

Under the leadership of Lou Gerstner and Sam Palmisano, IBM did, in fact, turn itself around. It stomped on its competitors in services, strategic outsourcing, enterprise software, and big iron. Sun Microsystems? Toast. DEC? History. HP Superdome compared to IBM POWER and System z market share? Please.

Anyone who bought IBM stock in 1993 at the low and kept it through 2011 when the company's market cap hit its peak would have been very happy indeed.

Now, we are in 2017. IBM is again at a crossroads. The software and services businesses that held up the company and saved it from extinction in the last round have now dried up.


"There needs to be a regime change at IBM. It needs to have a technologist lead the company and it needs to disrupt internally."

Still, things are not as dire as they were in 1993. The company has a decent amount of cash reserves, retains a lot of patents, undertakes a lot of important research, and has made key advances in quantum and optical computing, memory, and most notably, analytics and natural language processing. In terms of emerging technologies, IBM still has a lot of life left.

But IBM has too many aging employees, in particular middle management types that do not significantly contribute to the company's bottom line and are essentially waiting for their stock to vest before they retire. The company has too many unused real estate assets that cannot easily be repurposed. And, it has already sold off all of its large, poorly performing business units, such as its x86 PC and Server businesses (both went to Lenovo) and its semiconductor plants that make its POWER processors that go into its big iron systems.

So the company has bloodletting to do. It's going to have to become a much smaller company in order to get healthy. After that bloodletting is done, it needs to make some important choices.

Let's start from where they can differentiate. Take IBM's mainframe and big iron UNIX systems business, which has become clobbered by client-server systems in the last 20 years. This liability is actually an asset.

Sure, a lot of new application development went into Open Source and to Wintel, but there are still tons of legacy workloads running on the mainframe and AIX. Those workloads aren't going to leave where they are sitting or without being completely or partially re-written, and that is a monumental task.

Microsoft certainly doesn't want that work. Oracle doesn't want to do it (frankly, it wouldn't even if it knew how). HP won't/can't do it. And small and medium-sized SIs staffed with ex-IBMers who know that stuff most certainly won't do it. It's too risky and entangled.

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Only IBM can do it. The problem is nobody wants to buy new mainframes or big iron UNIX boxes. Revenue declined 17 percent in that business this last quarter and 22 percent during the same period last year.

Heck, nobody wants to make capital investments in anything if they can get away with it, because -- finally -- people are coming to the realization that cloud is an expense and not CAPEX. CAPEX is stupid.

So, IBM needs to build a Big Iron Cloud and position it as the target destination for aging System z and AIX workloads that would otherwise be too expensive to re-write or re-implement. It's got a ton of unused datacenter space from old hosting businesses in Poughkeepsie and other underutilized sites where it would be relatively easy for them to stand up something like that.

Assisted living for mainframes. That has to be worth something.

But IBM also needs to think toward the future, not just transition legacy workloads to the cloud and squeeze more milk out of the aging System z cow. The company still has a tremendous amount of brain trust in services and the datacenter, which it can use to move new workloads to the cloud and to the growth businesses where it wants to do $40 billion in next year.

The problem is that IBM spent the last 10 years trying to build its own proprietary cloud rather than partnering with a company that was actually leading in the cloud. IBM's cloud business is a respectable $13 billion and growing, but it doesn't have the mindshare or the workloads that AWS or Microsoft has. Softlayer was the right purchase, but it hasn't done the right things with it.

The other issue is that IBM hasn't figured out how to capture revenue from SMBs -- and that has always been elusive for them. Unless a deal is worth at least $1 million, and realistically $10 million, sales guys at IBM don't tend to get motivated.

The 5,000-seat and below market segment has traditionally been partner territory, and when it comes to reseller partners for its cloud, IBM is way, way behind AWS, Microsoft, Google, or even (gasp) Oracle, which is now offering serious margins to partners that land workloads on the Oracle cloud.

IBM's partner/reseller ecosystem is nowhere near what it was since it owned the PC and Server businesses that Lenovo now owns. And IBM's Softlayer/BlueMix cloud is largely tied to its software business, which, again, is slowing.

To capture partner interest, IBM actually needs something partners want to sell. Their current cloud is not something that a partner can sell. Partners want AWS and Azure, and to a lesser extent, Google. I think Google has a lot of unrealized potential with certain kinds of workloads and hasn't truly stepped in the enterprise cloud game yet.

In addition to treating its employees like human beings again, and returning morale to levels where identifying as an IBMer is again associated with pride and respect, I believe IBM needs to get its best architects, system engineers, and programmers trained on Microsoft technologies. Amazon and Google could also potentially be approached as partners, but ideologically, IBM and Microsoft have far more in common than IBM has with Amazon or Google.

IBM then needs to build out a Microsoft Azure-compliant cloud using Azure Stack, which partners can then resell. It can then populate this cloud with a catalog of services that are uniquely IBM, including its software platforms, which would allow hybridized workloads of the legacy big iron stuff it needs to get off customer premises and the new Azure stuff it would eventually need to land on once it is re-written, extended, transformed or re-platformed.

Why should IBM build an Azure-compliant cloud as opposed to just land workloads in Azure itself? Well, workloads tend to be sticky once you move them and when customers have a good experience, for starters.

IBM also has a lot of experience in business continuity and it works heavily with regulated industries that Microsoft has challenges working with, and despite Azure's suitability to those workloads, there are many enterprises that would love to have the flavor of Azure combined with IBMs ability to act as impartial trusted advisor and access to its heterogeneous skill sets.

These companies want private clouds, not public ones, but they don't want to host them or build them on their own. And, yes, they also want IBM's unique and growing software products and services like Watson and Cognos. And partners would love to sell something like that.

Not only that, but Microsoft really wants (needs) large hosting provider partners to build Azure-compliant private and public clouds. It sees huge value in Azure becoming viral and the overall ecosystem growing beyond its own datacenters. Believe me, I know this.

But for all of this stuff to happen, IBM needs to bury the hatchet with Microsoft. The two companies have been in an effective detente for two decades. However, the old guard at both companies is now gone. So, a rapprochement is long overdue.

In order for this to happen, however, there needs to be a regime change at IBM. Just as Microsoft underwent a painful transformation that upended its long-standing senior leadership and moved toward a cloud-first strategy led by a much younger, tech-savvy CEO, IBM now has to do the exact same thing.

It needs to have a technologist lead the company and it needs to disrupt internally.

That is a decision its stockholders and board of directors need to realize. And it needs to make these sweeping changes now while the company still has the potential to rebound.

Can IBM bounce back from the abyss and re-invent itself for the next century? Talk Back and Let Me Know.