IBM had to cancel the physical Think 2020 conference and go to a digital format like many other conferences. As the first major vendor event going digital, IBM had to set a yardstick in terms of digital events – and did not disappoint. A special challenge was that Red Hat's Red Hat Summit conference just happening the week before and it stole a lot of the 'thunder' especially in regards of hybrid cloud announcements. Weekly event proximity does not well for a set of rich announcements.

Here is the one slide summary in case you are too time pressed to read on:
And here are my key takeaways:

It is all about hybrid cloud. No surprise – the need for hybrid cloud and how IBM achieves it with Red Hat OpenShift was central to Think 2020. IBM did a good job with vision, sessions and customer examples for the adoption of OpenShift. The new push for edge was certainly not missing, as Red Hat released new capabilities for operating on the edge the week before. And with the race to 5G being first of all a massive backend overhaul, IBM did not miss out to show its value proposition for telcos here. A capability of OpenShift that CxOs need to note is that through its marketplace – multi-cloud deployments of 3rd party software can be achieved. Once an ISV is on the Red Hat Marketplace – its software runs not only on premises and the IBM Cloud, but also AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. For CxOs appreciating consistent deployment and single control – certainly, a benefit. Interestingly, separate conversation with a database vendor that recently published on the Red Hat Marketplace – show little to no performance degradation from OpenShift deployments – vs native deployments.

Quantum shows momentum. While I have some concerns on many of the IBM offerings and services, I have little to none of them on the Quantum progress that IBM is demonstrating. It shows the traditional hardware DNA still delivers (ok it does for the mainframe as well) and in combination with software is a key differentiator that few other tech giants can compete with. IBM used the digital format to even expand its quantum presence at Think 2020, adding more presentation and sessions on Quantum technology. One of the clear upsides of the digital format. Needless to say, Covid-19 was present, and IBM showed how quantum technology is superior simulating complex scenarios – like the spread of the SARS-COV-V2 virus. Since some time, IBM is looking at Quantum from a stronger use case perspective that was not missing at Think 2020. No surprise – financial institutions will benefit from quantum (and I wonder why that is not part of the vertical Financial Service cloud offering – at least in PowerPoint), but also security and most interesting to me – for chemistry. The game in quantum has moved from the pure quantum machine to the point how well can enterprises embed quantum processes into the rest of their computing architecture – forming a different type of hybrid cloud, a hybrid computing cloud were conventional processors work with quantum machines bridging the two worlds of compute to power next generation applications. IBM is very well setup to take part of this 'other' hybrid computing model, as it has all the relevant offerings to support it.

Watson comes to Ops and we have AIOps. Given IBM's experience managing large software environments and hardware, its announcements into the new AI Ops space are not a surprise. Another driver is of course the complexity of a hybrid, distributed IT environment – that IBM is selling, implementing and operating for its clients. Giving customer and / or its own consultants the ability to run these complex environments more reliably, securely and resiliently is key. At the core is the industry wide admission that Kubernetes environments that are spread out over many compute platforms are inherently complex. Enterprises want self-driving solutions, that operate autonomously. The solution is of course AI and when it is IBM that is Watson. How well Watson is up to the task will have to be seen, its traditional expert system that is queried by a human and created / operated by a data scientist is not the setup needed for autonomous AIOps. Now we have to see how well IBM can automate in the AIOps space. Success is not optional, as IBM sells and implements complex hybrid environments that no longer can be reliably managed in their totality by humans.

Act – do not react. IBM. Of course, AI overall was not missing at Think 2020 and IBM has a new motto with 'Act – don't react'. It is a good line, as it describes well the recent best practice change in AI deployments… instead of humans analyzing data and the realizing something is wrong ('reacting') – it is key to close the insight to action loop. That has been the quest from the first mainframe-based report that was printed… and has not been addressed by the industry overall. CxOs need to pay attention though as often the 'act' is contained into the BI / AI system – which poses the same challenges as before… only makes the delivery of insights better. Certainly, a benefit – but not really what is possible. All to often, at Think 2020, it was also again about the data side of AI, but that is a problem that is largely solved and / or solvable – the quest is really for the autonomous AI system, that makes the human optional in 2020, at least for some easy to make decisions. How well IBM can fill the vision of the new motto remains to be seen – beginnings are promising, but autonomous is really the holy grail.

Digital Conference Rating: B. Moving from in person events to digital events creates formidable challenges for enterprises, but is a necessity during the Covid-19 pandemic. The yardstick of what is good is moving rapidly – what was good in April, is no longer good enough in May, as enterprises find ways to create better digital experiences. It is a profound learning shift from the executives, to the regular speakers, to the event teams. IBM did well for being the first large vendor to have their event (Google cancelled in April) – so it will be interesting to see how other large event vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Salesforce will do. The good news is – the platform (whatever IBM used) held up to the demand, there was interesting content, executives were comfortable by presenting live etc. Ironically, a week before newly acquired RedHat did better overall, including a better agenda, better social support and more interactive panels. Remarkably former CEO Ginny Rometty did the best amongst executives, she had a genuine conversation that seemed unscripted, not screen read etc. with on diversity and inclusion.



IBM did not disappoint pulling off Think 2020 in a challenging environment: CEO transition, virtual event, new org structure etc. – all challenges that would have made a traditional conference a potentially challenging to very challenging event. It would not have been the first time a vendor cancels an event, with Covid-19 as excuse / explanation. So kudos for IBM to never consider that.

Not surprisingly IBM has shown there is a new executive team in place, that can articulate the vision, first and foremost around hybrid computing with Arvind Krishna and Jim Whitehurst. The cloud story needs a new chapter and IBM is trying to establish vertical cloud (again, something it tried a few years ago). No surprise, IBM starts in an industry where it is strong, Financial Services, but the announcement needs more than horizontal capabilities (security), but differentiating software assets, in short, a roadmap. Equally on the bright side IBM is making good progress with its Quantum offerings.

On the concern side, I am not sure if this is enough to turn IBM to revenue growth and keep its close to 300k employees busy, meaning – will it fuel the IBM as we know it over the decades, as the trusted advisor and partner for enterprise IT. In my view IBM needs more offerings for that – the always visible trifecta of three major offerings under Rometty – with e.g. Cloud, Watson and even blockchain (no big announcements on the topic at Think 2020) from 5-6 years ago – feels stronger than Cloud, AI / Watson  -and – wait what is the third of 2020? Lastly, I would really like for IBM to talk more about the products its customers are using – e.g. dB2 had a new release. What is happening with WebSphere? IBM not only maintains but keeps building out these products, that are all critical for IBM customers.

Overall a good start for IBM under new leadership and a new executive team. The hybrid cloud offering, with the attempt to be the 'neutral' cloud vendor that can provide workloads across all major public clouds and on premises, to the edge is attractive to CxOs. But it competes with the more proprietary options from the public cloud vendors who offer a closed, but likely faster path to production. IBM needs to deliver fast on the OpenShift opportunity, needs to share roadmaps and show it can deliver more attractive portfolio offerings for client and prospects. It also needs to lead its Quantum offerings from trial and lab into real world benefits on a larger scale – not easy – but the priority at hand right now. DNA, talent, money and opportunities are there – its for the team around Krishna to deliver them. IBM has a knack of not becoming a 'boring' IT player.

Don't miss my take on Arvind Krishna's appointment here and Wakelet collection of key tweets below

Find more coverage on the Constellation Research website here and checkout my magazine on Flipboard and my YouTube channel here.