Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend IBM‘s Pulse conference, where the company welcomed over 10,000 of its software customers. This group is primarily focused on IBM’s Cloud & Smarter Infrastructure solutions, built largely around the Tivoli and Maximo portfolios. The overall theme of the event was how Cloud is the answer…to everything. I’ll admit I’m a little dubious on that front, but in general IBM is backing this up with a tremendous number of new product introductions and roadmaps that build on, reinforce, and drive that Cloud strategy.

Network management is admittedly a small portion of the story here. But it is an important part of the story, and was always included in the laundry list of technologies that must be present and performing highly for all these cloud initiatives to be successful. A couple of key announcements and statements caught my attention and are relevant specifically to IBM’s network management strategy.

1. Analytics. Advanced data analysis and analytics has become increasingly important as a capstone to all operations monitoring solutions, including network monitoring, whether for event collection, device availability, or performance. IBM announced its Netcool Operations Insight product, which is a successor to its well-known Netcool/Omnibus event management platform. See also the EMA whitepaper on this new solution.  What is significant here is that IBM has added its SmartCloud Analytics Log Analysis as an integral module that is shipped with the Omnibus event engine. While user interface consoles are still not fully meshed, contextual log analysis now becomes a simple right-click drill down from alarm and event views, accelerating investigative workflows. These new capabilities are also expected to soon be present in the IBM Netcool Network Management bundle, so that networking pros will have access to this advanced functionality as well.

2. SaaS.  Also announced was IBM Service Engage – a brand new set of management SaaS offerings hosted on IBM’s SoftLayer cloud platform. A full EMA Product Brief on Service Engage can be found here.  While network management is not part of the initial SaaS offerings, it is on the roadmap and we could see it by the end of 2014. Service Engage represents a major shift in the way IBM delivers its management tools. In the past, IBM solutions typically required significant professional services engagement and extended time periods for deployment, and product upgrade cycles were measured in months or even years. With the Service Engage SaaS model, deployment has been radically streamlined, to the point of becoming nearly trivial, and product updates can be delivered in weeks or even days. As an example, the design objective for one of the initial offerings, systems monitoring (a la IBM Tivoli Manager,) is to complete deployment and be up and running in under five minutes. This is a revolutionary departure from the time and effort required for IBM’s traditional on premise model, and represents the most viable approach IBM has ever had for successfully meeting the needs of mid-tier shops.

3. SDN. I had a chance to sit in on a session that addressed supporting SDN as a part of cloud orchestration. A representative from Juniper presented the basic elements of the Contrail controller and virtual network overlay architecture. An IBM speaker talked about IBM SmartCloud Orchestrator and how networking can be connected into the platform using OpenStack. This was not news – it was first announced last September – but I did have an opportunity to talk with the speakers afterwards and was informed that there are a number of pilot deployments currently underway. In my recent joint research with Torsten Volk on challenges facing those trying to move to SDDC/SDE, networking was identified as the top pain point. I don’t take that as a negative – I take it as an indication that networking is simply the least comfortable and least well understood when it comes to software defined infrastructure, orchestration, and automation. When indeed there are production-side deployments of integrated SDN under cloud orchestration, we will be one huge step closer to truly automated environments.

4. The API Economy: There was an “ah ha” moment for me at this conference. When Robert LeBlanc, SVP of IBM Software Group, held a main stage session on the BlueMix development platform, he invited Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio to come on stage and demonstrate how simple it was to invoke Twilio’s Cloud Unified Communications service features using the BlueMix environment. Jeff proceeded to compose live code on stage in front of 10,000 people, banging out 20+ lines in a few minutes to add an automated text messaging function to a sample website. It was a short routine, one that could easily include some errors and create undesired results, but also short enough that the relative risk was fairly low. My first thought was “well that’s just fine if you’re an experienced coder.” Then I realized – this is where we are all headed – even in the realm of network management. As the API economy slowly but steadily invades every aspect of IT, writing code in this way becomes the glueware. And as a result, functionality that would have taken weeks or months to develop before platforms like BlueMix was indeed completed and functional in just a few minutes. And that has me thinking a little about the possibilities for truly agile IT and just how rapidly the managed environment will be changing in the future….

What continues to impress me about IBM is the comprehensive and rich nature of its portfolio – particularly if you are looking beyond network management.  Yes, they are still missing bits and pieces here and there (packet-based network performance monitoring, for example) but the vast majority of needs and capabilities are covered.  Time will tell, but the new Service Engage SaaS platform could be a turning point for IBM, allowing them to overcome the cost and complexity of deployment/maintenance that has for so long kept them off short lists outside of the world’s largest organizations.  Regardless, my opinion is that IBM still has a strong network management pulse, and one that may quicken as 2014 unfolds.

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