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Dinosaurs battle in tar pits

It was Fred Brooks that gave us that vivid image of the mortal struggles of great beasts of prehistory in the tar pits. Today the struggle continues, it's just there are different beasts, and the criteria for the survival of the fittest is constantly changing. CBDi Forum reports on IBM's strategic direction as presented by Sam Palmisano last week.

Market Analysis

Dinosaurs battle in tar pits
It was Fred Brooks that gave us that vivid image of the mortal struggles of great beasts of prehistory in the tar pits. Brooks conjured up the scene of "dinosaurs, mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers struggling against the grip of the tar. The fiercer the struggle, the more the great beasts were entangled, and no beast was so strong or skilful but that eventually he sank into the tar."

Back in 1972, Brooks was talking about the problems inherent in large system programming projects, and the seeming inevitability of failure as team after team discovered the strangely sticky nature of the software project challenge. Today we might congratulate ourselves that with the aid of modern architectures, tools, languages, processes and reusable components we can skip across the tar pits without becoming entangled. But before we become too complacent, let's admit that we are deep in the grip of another, much more lethal tar pit -- it's the witches cauldron of problems that stop a business or enterprise making changes to business processes or commercial arrangements because of the overwhelming complexity and interdependency of existing systems.

Microsoft focuses on near-term reality
Over two years ago, in June 2000, Microsoft gave us a vision of the future based on Web services. In that early vision, Bill Gates gave a picture of a level of personal automation with anywhere, anyplace, anytime interaction with multiple Service providers. Instant response to changing events through loosely coupled federations of intelligent services. As we know, Microsoft came to understand that vision was too far reaching, and after considerable criticism and widespread misunderstanding, subsequently altered its product plans. The Microsoft service-based vision is now focused firmly on today's realities -- the integration tar pit. Microsoft people readily accept that most of their Web services activity is internal or in tightly controlled B2B situations, because this is where the real requirement is today, and anyway it is essential preparation for future, more sophisticated external Web service applications.

Sun belatedly moves to services on demand
Sun Microsystems played party pooper to the Web services for a long time. When they eventually came to the party, they spent much energy telling us that, actually, Web services weren't really important, and that it was Services on Demand that we should be focused on. But unusually Sun had difficulty explaining what they meant, probably because they were so dead set on attacking the Web services lobby, rather than explaining their strategy. Strangely, they allowed leadership in the loose coupling standards arena to pass to Microsoft and IBM. It was only in June of this year that we felt that Sun had straightened out its overall product strategy and plans. We said "Sun is now aggressively preparing for the reality of the service-based world, where massive servers provide services to very large constituencies of users inside and outside the organization on a highly automated, on-demand basis". However, our report at the time reflects the intensive briefings we were given by Sun, and the emphasis on integration was very low.

IBM makes its move
Over the past two years IBM has clearly invested massively in Web services. It has established, together with Microsoft, undisputed leadership in standards activity. It has radically reengineered its products and services into the Service world, and led the thinking on use of Service architectures for integration of proprietary technologies and legacy applications. Yet IBM has never attempted to take any leadership in vision or strategy. Although it was clearly investing massively in Web services in support of its vast, heterogeneous base, it always seemed to be content to let others take the higher profile in setting the industry agenda.

Last week all this changed. Sam Palmisano, President and CEO of IBM took the stage in front of 300 customers, analysts and media and vast numbers of IBM'ers, to set out a vision that in many respects goes beyond the ambitions of Microsoft and Sun. It was perhaps appropriate that Palmisano was speaking at the American Museum of National History, which not too subliminally suggests the profound nature of the event, virtually surrounded by remnants of the great beasts of prehistory together with inter galactic research programs posing the question "are we alone?"

The Palmisano speech has been widely reported. In essence IBM is setting a company direction which is to deliver capability that will enable the virtual business - adaptable business processes that operate seamlessly across enterprise boundaries using virtual resources at low cost. Interestingly IBM is using a very similar term to Sun Microsystems with "on demand", but unlike Sun they are putting this in the business context and aim to provide the environment where business processes are integrated end to end across an enterprise and its customers, suppliers and partners supporting highly responsive, adaptive business models. This is backed by full life cycle services including the recent acquisition of the PWC business process consulting capability. IBM is putting its money where its mouth is with long term R & D investment and a commitment to eat its own dogfood by implementing the virtual business throughout IBM.

SWOT analysis
IBM identifies four foundation stones to the strategy:

  1. Integration - components and services implemented with full separation and implementation transparency
  2. Open - all layers of the stack based on open standards
  3. Virtualized - not just location independence, but also a major focus on increasing the woefully inadequate resource utilization levels across the industry
  4. Autonomic - all layers of the stack operating as an immune system

and while IBM's direct competitors may lay claim to any one of these items, it is interesting to consider that IBM is either well placed to, or has already established a leadership position in all of them, and is very advanced in all of these areas. We have reported on all of these in the past year, and include several pertinent references below. We were also briefed by IBM on the virtualization infrastructure way back in 2001. They make the point that whilst the vision is long term and aggressive, IBM has already proven all the technology components and that the real issues moving forward are implementation and cultural.

This is a new, more confident IBM. It is setting out a vision which is starkly differentiated from its primary competitors on a number of important points:

  1. The vision is really long term. IBM clearly has no concerns that they might be repeating the mistake made by Microsoft, and is setting out a vision that is going to take decades to realize in full.

  2. The vision is all about customer issues. Sun's vision is all about technology and quality. Microsoft's vision is about features and function. IBM alone is sharply focused on business process enablement.

  3. They alone are fully embracing the open standards. Whilst others pick and choose the open standards that suit them or retain a measure of control that makes standards less than completely open, IBM alone have understood that tomorrows world is going to be an open world. Quite simply, the IT industry is following the well worn path trodden by other industries and technologies that embrace standards and openness as a natural consequence of maturity.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the Palmisano speech is that it contains almost nothing new. We already knew all of the individual content at a product, program level. What is really interesting is IBM's intent to take a stronger leadership role in setting industry directions, not in a directly competitive sense, but to show its customers and competitors how it expects the industry as a whole to mature over time.

The entire component and Web Service effort currently in process is one, very important part of that overall maturing process - establishing the openness, formality and precision of interfaces that allows implementation independence, virtualization and autonomic behaviors. IBM in particular, but also Microsoft are to be applauded in their unwavering efforts to make this happen.

My prehistoric theme today may serve to remind us of Darwin's theory of evolution and the mechanism of natural selection which others freely interpreted as "survival of the fittest". It is clear that around mid 2000, we entered a new period of profound change in the way the IT industry works and those that can most quickly adapt to the new environment will be the long term winners.

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Links and references:
CBDI Newswire Commentary Thu 21 Feb 2002:
An announcement from IBM and Globus this week makes it certain that Grid computing and Web services will converge to a significant extent. We examine the implications. Report available to all members

CBDI Journal Report - July /August 2002:
New Tools and Technologies from IBM for Web Services
This report considers how new technologies from IBM provide a powerful framework for consuming and providing Web services. Report available to Silver and Gold members

CBDI Journal Report - November 2002:
Platform Vendors Move in on Web Service Management.
We look at WSTK's recently released by IBM and Microsoft and assess how this changes the Web services Management Platform market. This report will be available to Gold and Silver members next week, don't miss it.

CBDI Journal Report - January 2002:
New Web Service Security Models
Microsoft and IBM are currently pushing different models of trust and security. Microsoft is appealing to a model that harks back to the Fortress Mainframe of the 1960s, while IBM is developing a radically different model that appeals to biological rather than military metaphors. Report available to Gold and Silver members

The Mythical Man Month, Fredrick P Brooks Jr. Addison-Wesley, 1972

Copyright CBDi Forum Limited 2002. The CBDi Forum is an analysis firm and think tank, providing insight on component and web service technologies, processes and practices for the software industry and its customers. To register for the weekly newswire click here.

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