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Q&A: IBM Global Business Services CTO Talks Cloud

IBM Fellow and Global Business Services CTO Kerrie Holley, who helped shape SOA, shares his thoughts on cloud trends, the future of IT, and more.

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InformationWeek: How is the shift toward mobile computing and different form factors of computing, like tablets, affecting what IBM does? Has it shaped the way the company goes to market or the direction the company is headed?

Holley: I would say a couple of things. One is that mobile computing is certainly huge, and a huge opportunity. We have practices, both in software and research and services, focused on that. From a Global Business Services standpoint, or maybe from a market standpoint, there are a lot of boutique firms that will offer capabilities [that may be more specific with regard to mobile devices]. What we do, from a services standpoint and from a software and research standpoint, is we have a user-centered design team. We have a group of people that specialize in the user experience ... to actually create a rich experience on a mobile device.

Then there's another part of this equation, which is to actually maybe create a rich mobile experience. We've done a project in India, and this was work done out of our research, where we actually created voice-enabled Web. That's an example of offering a capability that hadn't been offered before.

In fact, I'm beginning a project at a major transportation company, where the thing that we're trying to do is ... [to allow customers to configure vehicles being purchased] using a mobile device, where you can actually customize your vehicle. At first glance, it seems rather simple. But in certain types of vehicles, the configuration options are mind-blowing. So we actually have a research asset that we created which actually helps this decision [by using algorithms to winnow the options] so we can actually present the information on a mobile device. A lot of what we do, arguably, is on the back-end side, but it's specifically geared toward the interface, which we know will be mobile. We know it will be a smartphone or a tablet of some kind, versus someone sitting at a desktop.

InformationWeek: Is there any particular challenge or problem facing the IT industry that you wish could be changed?

Holley: Absolutely. There's probably a few problems of that kind. As you know, we're a B2B company, so largely the problems that we describe are problems that major businesses, or even small businesses, but businesses that use technology face.

I'm working with this company in the South--and it's not the only company--one of the huge problems we see is that a lot of applications that are built in the 21st century turn brittle within a three-year window. What I mean by brittle is the ability for the business to actually leverage that application for future opportunities, whether it's a new process change or a new market opportunity. Companies find that they're being constrained by systems that they built, [some 20 years ago and some as little as three years ago].

That's one of the reasons I spent a lot of time with Service Oriented Architecture was to [avoid that type of problem when we] actually build business systems. So I would say that challenge is still upon us, but it's certainly one I'd love to see change, because I think it would free up capital, it would free up resources, and it would allow businesses to spend a lot more time on new things, versus keeping the lights on and integrating things.

InformationWeek: By Service Oriented Architecture, you mean a more modular approach to the design of systems so that they can be plugged into new systems without ripping everything out?

Holley: Exactly. At the heart of service oriented architecture, it builds in flexibility into what you build, so that you can do exactly what you just described--begin to treat these systems as LEGO blocks so that I can take a piece and it's not constrained by the fact that was attached to this back-end or attached to this front-end, and I can move it to a new usage without a cost.

InformationWeek: Technology companies have long relied on technical incompatibilities to protect their markets and gain a competitive advantage, even as they have to make some concessions toward interoperability. Companies have to find their own level of comfort with being open and being closed. Do you see this balance shifting?

Holley: I do see it shifting. If you look at the physical world in terms of hardware, we can argue whether this is good or bad, but you and I, when we no longer have a device that meets our needs, we just go buy a new one. Or if it breaks, we go, and when it's repaired, it often means getting a new one. But when you think about that, that's because the cost of doing so is rather low. But when you think about software, the amount of time and money it took to build some of these systems unfortunately costs a lot more than a smartphone and costs a lot more than a refrigerator or these other devices.

But at the same time, we'd like to move to that same model. We'd like to be able to discard and replace. I think what you said is true. I think that some of the cost [of incompatibility] is a necessary evil. But I do think a substantial part of the cost is how we actually built it in the first place, and I think that part of the problem we can fix. We find that's being fixed as we speak.

In fact, this company, which is a transportation carrier that I'm working with in the South, this is exactly what they're going to do. They're not the first ones to have done this, to have taken old systems and revamped them. The reason they do that ... is not repeat their problems or sins of the past. They don't want to redo it and then find that they didn't actually build in this flexibility as an attribute of the actual new system.

InformationWeek: In terms of software design, it could be something as simple as just making sure that there is an XML export capability to ensure forward compatibility or something like that?

Holley: Exactly, that's a great example. We use this term of "agility indicators." But there's a ton of these indicators, or rather, attributes, these levers that you can pull. The more that you pull, the more your resulting system is more agile. But the XML is a classic example. Web service is another. But there's a bunch of these rules, the externalization of business rules. There are a lot of these levers, when applied holistically, have a tremendous benefit to the outcome.

InformationWeek: In cloud computing, there are trade-offs. You get a lot of freedom in terms of not having to worry about systems and not having to worry about the scalability of systems. At the same time, there's concern about lock in, security, and future-proofing and so on. How would you describe IBM's view of where the cloud needs to go in terms of competing with the advantages of on-premises systems?

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