The evolution of IBM continued at this year’s Impact conference in Las Vegas. Over 9,000 IBMers, customers, business partners and others packed the Venetian’s conference centre to hear a number of key announcements covering Cloud, Mobile, Systems and Infrastructure amongst others. Much of what was core to Impact built on announcements made at the Pulse conference only a couple of months ago. Primarily the Platform as a Service (PaaS) product codenamed BlueMix which is increasingly being placed at the heart of IBM’s products and services. Impact saw the company continue to talk about the composable business, a theme it began at its Pulse conference in February 2014. The composable business is a concept that is perhaps less new but more an acceptance of what has been true for a long time.

So what’s this evolution all about?

IBM has been an enterprise IT vendor for many years, selling big ticket hardware and software products backed up by an army of consultants to the world’s largest organisations (who could afford it). This has historically provided enterprises with an inherent advantage over smaller competitors who simply could not afford to get on the same playing field. The emergence of Cloud has started to level that playing field in recent years. With software delivered as a service the price has dropped dramatically and organisations of all sizes can benefit equally. Salesforce is the quintessential example of SaaS and the democratisation of modern IT.

IBM knows that this poses a threat over the long term to much of its business and has responded. They have been rapidly building out their SaaS catalogue which now sits at 100+ products. Some core IBM offerings are moving to the service delivery model such as PureApplication System which it announced will be offered as PureApplication service via IBM’s vaunted SoftLayer Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) capability.

Then of course there is BlueMix which is increasingly becoming central to many of IBM’s offerings. At Impact they announced the IBM Cloud Marketplace which brings together a combination of PureApplication and BlueMix services into a single store front. These have been grouped into markets: Gaming, IT Management, DevOps, Mobile, Start-ups and Analytics. CIC has been covering BlueMix for some time and were at both Pulse and Mobile World Congress (MWC) for the launch. Announcement of BlueMix at MWC was in recognition of the importance of mobile to cloud adoption at least in the short term. The IBM MobileFirst group is certainly pushing BlueMix as a major piece in an organisation’s mobile strategy.

It is not just the products and services where IBM can be seen to be changing. IBM Design was set-up last year with a studio in Austin, Texas to improve the user experience of IBM products. Their impressive work can already be seen in the design of BlueMix and the Watson Developer Cloud and is being rolled out across more of IBM. And as if that’s not enough to convince you that IBM continues to moveinto the modern world then hearing a senior exec use The Matrix as an analogy should tell you something.

Haven’t businesses always been composable?

It is through the idea of applications being constructed from a collection of different web services that IBM have spawned the composable business concept. This approach to software development will not be new to some markets such as startups but will require some education within others like the enterprise. Enterprise architects are largely unfamiliar with this type of application design based upon the API Economy. Using PaaS means that large parts of an application are essentially a black box exposed only by web service calls. Very little code is often required to bring together a number of these services to create a relatively complex application. The most likely use case in the enterprise is BlueMix forming part of a hybrid (or “cross border” as IBM seems to now prefer) cloud solution. BlueMix services can be used to bridge mobile apps and on-premise systems.

Enterprises have for a long time built out their environments using a combination of different parts: SAP, Sharepoint, Salesforce, Oracle and so on. Service Integrators have done well out of fitting these together. One could say that businesses have been composable for some time. So whilst the detail of designing and building software using PaaS may be new the principle of building something out of third party solutions is not.

The next “big” “thing”?

The day 3 keynote (often the best at big vendor conferences) talked a lot about Internet of Things (IoT). There was a very insightful and entertaining demo that also included BlueMix which has some IoT specific services. On a more serious note there were customer examples of IoT in action in industries such as agriculture . A demo by OnFarm showed how data from numerous sensors could monitor crops by the second and allow farmers to provide just the right amount of water at the right time. The results are more efficient crop growth and significant water savings. With a long history in embedded systems IBM is well placed to participate in the IoT revolution into which we’re starting to enter.

Beyond the big topics of Cloud and Mobile there was also a fair amount of time given over to Big Data and Analytics (BDA). Apparently these are now joined at the hip which makes sense because the bigger the data the more necessary and valuable analytics becomes. Thankfully these were given far greater relevance than the usual Social Media examples that vendors roll out time and again. Instead IBM talked again about IoT and the role of BDA in making sense of the vast amount of data that the billions of things on the planet will eventually generate. This showed a very grown up way of looking at this topic and other vendors should learn from it. After all sentiment analysis got old quickly and if there are businesses out there making major strategic decisions based on what can be inferred from a load of Tweets generated by a fraction of their customer base, well good luck to them.

Still box shifting after all of these years

Finally it would not be IBM without some hardware and the day 2 keynote spent some time talking about infrastructure and upgrades to some of their Systems like Pure. This creates a slight confusion as on the one hand IBM are now saying not to worry about Infrastructure, that it will be handled for you by the cloud, and then on the other they are still flogging hardware. The message being how important infrastructure is. Whilst IBM can go so far into the new world there has to be a recognition that many of their customers are and will continue to be stuck in the old for some time.

The success of IBM’s evolution will be measured beyond a single conference and whilst Impact had a lot of forward thinking announcements we will have to wait and see whether its message gets to the wider world. It is the wider world that IBM are now targeting and that may prove the biggest challenge for them. After years of talking to only a select few, how quickly will they be able to talk to the many?

Conference season continues for IBM with Innovate 2014 in Orlando next month and CIC will be there to cover all of the major announcements.