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Executive corner: Interview with Danny Sabbah, CTO & GM of IBM’s Next Generation Platform

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Few people understand chief information officers’ pain points quite like Danny Sabbah.

On one hand, IBM’s CTO and general manager of Next Generation Platform wants IBM’s clients to grasp the potential benefits of a cloud model. On the other hand, the reality of an organization’s existing environment and the transitional steps that they’re going to have to make from a technology, organizational and cultural standpoint can be daunting.

Danny Sabbah

Danny Sabbah

“We’re in business to actually help customers through that kind of transformation,” Sabbah says, “as well as to help them exploit the benefits of cloud while not leaving behind the existing assets that they’ve spent so much money to create.”

We recently caught up with Sabbah at the Cloud Innovation Forum in Orlando to find out exactly how IBM is helping to ease that transition to cloud.

Cloud is commonly referred to as a “disruptor” in IT. What does that mean to you?

It’s not really just cloud. Cloud is one of the elements that we’re seeing that are disrupting multiple industries. It’s cloud in combination with big data and big data in combination with analytics—especially analytics coming off the web. It’s pervasive access to information that’s being generated through social networks and information that’s being generated from millions of embedded devices. That information is another resource that can literally reshape the way you interact with clients or the way you formulate and deliver your services as a particular industry.

If you get caught on the wrong end of this type of business transformation, you have the potential to be disrupted.

What are some of the ways IBM is meeting the needs of companies who can benefit from a hybrid cloud model?

What we’re trying to do is provide them with a more realistic approach so that they get the flexibility to move workloads and data as needed. This is instead of forcing them to make very difficult decisions about where that data is going to reside, how it’s going to be governed, how that application is going to be secured. If they don’t feel like, in their particular industry because of compliance or safety issues that they can’t afford to migrate workloads to the cloud, they can’t afford to start looking solely at public cloud solutions. What we’re trying to do is essentially build a bridge so they can take whole applications or parts of applications, get the benefits of cloud economics without leaving behind the necessary realities of their current computing environments.

It gives them a greater choice. They can either go to private clouds or they can go to legacy systems and they can go to more public or off-premises solutions. They can link them together or move between them or burst between them as necessary. That’s the kind of model that gives them the ability to either migrate or move as necessary to get the best of all worlds.

How has the SoftLayer acquisition helped to drive cloud innovation within IBM?

It’s given us a scalable platform, for one, around infrastructure as a service (IaaS), on which we were able to deliver models like BlueMix. It’s also given us a platform on which we were able to retarget many of our SaaS properties in a systematic way. This gave us the flexibility to virtualize and scale at the same time. On the other hand, when we need it, it’s given us bare metal platform when things were not built on a virtualization model. It’s given us a gamut of capabilities, and we’ve been able to take advantage of those and move more and more of our capacity to deliver IBM as a service. That’s a huge shift in one year.

What’s the next phase of that?

There’s so much work to do. One of the things we’ve already announced is the evolution of SoftLayer’s hardware platform, so that we can incorporate our own innovation from a hardware perspective and systems building perspective and weave that into the basic capabilities we have in SoftLayer.

In addition to that, SoftLayer by itself could never have developed or could not really address the types of hybrid scenarios we just talked about for enterprises. They were a small team oriented toward gamers and born-on-the-web companies. Some of the challenges you seen in enterprise environments were beyond their skillset.

We’re trying to blend the best of both.

Cloud is a relatively young technology, so how is IBM working to meet its customers’ evolving needs as the technology continues to rapidly shift?

The first thing we’ve got to do is realize we’re not Google and that we’re not Amazon. There are good points and bad points to that. For us, understanding our value to the literally tens of thousands of enterprises around the world, some of whom are racing to the future, some of whom are crawling to the future, our historical ability to help them move through those key transitions in technology has built our business for the last 70 years. Staying grounded in that is something that I think sometimes IBMers have a hard time with. They want to be the next Google or they want to be the next Amazon without realizing that IBM’s value in being essential to its class of customers is really challenging enough. That’s something that Amazon and Google are never going to touch. I’ve seen this in many generations of technology. I haven’t been around for those 70 years, but I’ve been around for the last 40 years.

Speaking of which, you’ve been with IBM since 1974, so you’ve seen cloud technology grow from its infancy to what it is today. What do you see as the most fascinating thing about that?

The pervasive nature. When I first started, the industry in its infancy was directly touching a very small percentage of the population. It was all back office. It was all systems that were projected through green screens. The direct interaction with ever man and woman every day didn’t exist. When you think about the pervasive nature of technology today, it’s a radical shift. It touches every man and woman every day, all over the world. When you think about the global expansion and the impacts that the global expansion has had, it’s changed the world in many ways. When you think about its potential, we’ve only touched the surface. That’s what keeps us excited and moving forward.

How can CIOs better communicate the value of cloud throughout their organization?

I think before communicating they have to take a course in understanding the relationship between technology and their lines of business. The one thing that I notice time and time again is the more that the information technology leaders within an organization are translating between technology and business outcome, the better off they are. The more they’re able to coherently and cogently relate technology shifts to business shifts, the better off they generally are in the c-suite. They’re speaking the same language at that point. Most successful CIOs I’ve seen have been able to make that shift.

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