The industry is abuzz with speculation that IBM will sell its x86 server business to Lenovo. As usual, neither party is talking publicly, but at this point I’d give it a better than even chance, since usually these kind of rumors tend to be based on leaks of real discussions as opposed to being completely delusional fantasies. Usually.
So the obvious question then becomes “Huh?”, or, slightly more eloquently stated, “Why would they do something like that?”. Aside from the possibility that this might all be fantasy, two explanations come to mind:
1. IBM is crazy.
2. IBM is not crazy.
Of the two explanations, I’ll have to lean toward the latter, although we might be dealing with a bit of the “Hey, I’m the new CEO and I’m going to do something really dramatic today” syndrome. IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo to the tune of popular disbelief and dire predictions, and it's doing very well today because it transferred its investments and focus to higher margin business, like servers and services. Lenovo makes low-end servers today that it bootstrapped with IBM licensed technology, and IBM is finding it very hard to compete with Lenovo and other low-cost providers. Maybe the margins on its commodity server business have sunk below some critical internal benchmark for return on investment, and it believes that it can get a better return on its money elsewhere.
Last month, I was in Europe with a group of customer experience professionals from various divisions of the same large company. Although their expertise was at varying levels, no one was clueless, and everyone seemed highly motivated. About halfway through the all-day session, one of the attendees asked me a question that I’m going to paraphrase here.
After some preamble about the pressures the company was under to increase revenue and profits, he asked, “Given that, when should we put aside the need for profits and fund customer experience projects instead?”
His question surprised me. And I clearly surprised him when I responded, “Never.” I let that hang in the air for a moment so that it could sink in. Then I added, “You should never put aside the need for profits when you fund customer experience projects.”
I could see that people were a little confused, so I went on. “You should only fund customer experience projects that will produce profits. That’s why you do those projects in the first place. And if you have other kinds of projects that will produce better business results, do them instead. But if you take the time to create the business models for your CX projects, you’ll probably find that they’ll produce better ROI than most of the initiatives they’re competing against.”
To be clear, the guy who had asked the question seemed very bright and had a lot of expertise in his area (metrics and measurement). But he had fallen into the same trap that so many customer experience advocates fall into. He wasn’t thinking of improving customer experience as a path to achieving business results. Instead, he was thinking of it just as a generally good thing to do for customers (which it is, but that’s not why you should do it).
With the next major spin of Intel server CPUs due later this year, HP’s customers have been waiting for HP’s next iteration of its core c-Class BladeSystem, which has been on the market for almost 7 years without any major changes to its basic architecture. IBM made a major enhancement to its BladeCenter architecture, replacing it with the new Pure Systems, and Cisco’s offering is new enough that it should last for at least another three years without a major architectural refresh, leaving HP customers to wonder when HP was going to introduce its next blade enclosure, and whether it would be compatible with current products.
At their partner conference this week, HP announced a range of enhancements to its blade product line that on combination represent a strong evolution of the current product while maintaining compatibility with current investments. This positioning is similar to what IBM did with its BladeCenter to BladeCenter-H upgrade, preserving current customer investment and extending the life of the current server and peripheral modules for several more years.
Tech Stuff – What Was Announced
Among the goodies announced on February 19 was an assortment of performance and functionality enhancements, including:
Platinum enclosure — The centerpiece of the announcement was the new c7000 Platinum enclosure, which boosts the speed of the midplane signal paths from 10 GHz to 14GHz, for an increase of 40% in raw bandwidth of the critical midplane, across which all of the enclosure I/O travels. In addition to the increased bandwidth midplane, the new enclosure incorporates location aware sensors and also doubles the available storage bandwidth.
At the Cisco Live EMEAR 2013 event in London, Cisco brought a new down-to-earth dynamism to the table. The vision for how Cisco is intending to empower its clients in an evermore connected world is becoming clearer. In this blog, Forrester analysts Dan Bieler and Peter O’Neill discuss their take-home messages from the event:
Hosted Collaboration Solution is empowering its high-end channel partners.
Dan. HCS, Cisco’s hosted collaboration suite, allows carriers to offer cloud-based as-a-service solutions, comprising unified communications, telepresence, contact centre, as well as a range of communication features under the Jabber brand. In EMEAR, BT, Telefonica, and Vodafone are already selling HCS, primarily aiming it at MNC customers. It remains to be seen whether the HCS pitch is the right one for smaller carriers and SMBs, especially as Cisco remains committed to catering to SMBs.
Peter. They also need to think about being more attractive to the needs of midmarket system integrators and MSPs. That means they must provide different price configurations that are attractive to SMBs. Positioning themselves only to the national telcos is quite restrictive and doesn’t match the increasing demand we are seeing for these solutions across the market. But, of course, if they want to compete in the SMB segment, they’ll compete with Google and Microsoft and their pricing strategies. The best way to run two pricing strategies is to use two brands.
In response to many requests to feature more business-to-business (B2B) content at our events, next month’s Outside In: A Forum For Customer Experience Professionals will feature several B2B keynote presenters, including Randy Pond, EVP of operations, processes, and systems at Cisco Systems. In preparation for the event, I caught up with Randy to talk about his keynote and the importance of championing the voice of the customer at Cisco. Check out a preview of Randy’s session in the below Q&A, or join me in Los Angeles, November 14th to 15th, to hear Cisco’s full story.
Q: What gets in the way of delivering the right experience to your customers?
First, in some areas, I believe we lack consistent policy and practices in the business that we can inspect, enforce, and govern. It’s a combination of the legacy of our entrepreneurial spirit, drive to market, and speed to market. The second is related to the fact that we have a regular influx of acquired companies that we have to embed into our offering, scale into the marketplace, and turn loose to our customers. This can get us into trouble when we may not have the same sense of urgency when we release products. As well, there is a big push on the sales team to get new products moving and out to customers and a big pull from our customer base to get these new offerings in the marketplace. And that stretches our ability to make them as effective and easy to use as we would like.
First, our final lineup of external speakers is confirmed. All of our main-stage speakers are from companies featured in our new book, Outside In — some of them are even the subjects of case studies in the book.
Many of you have asked us to feature more business-to-business content in our events, so in response, we have both Randy Pond, EVP of operations, processes, and systems at Cisco Systems, and John Taschek, VP Mof market strategy at salesforce.com. Both companies are in the book, and Randy is the executive sponsor of the program that won one of our 2012 Voice Of The Customer Awards.
In addition to Randy and John, we have Dr. Jim Merlino, the chief experience officer for Cleveland Clinic, a world-famous, $6 billion healthcare provider. The work he is doing is as applicable to organizations outside of healthcare as it is relevant to all of us who have ever been (or will ever be) patients.
We’re also excited about our main-stage panel on building a customer-centric culture with Nancy Fratzke of US Cellular and Kelly Harper of BMO Financial Group. Transforming a culture is one of the hardest things any of us will do, and both of these panelists have successfully done it.
Earlier this week at its Discover customer event, HP announced a significant set of improvements to its already successful c-Class BladeSystem product line, which, despite continuing competitive pressure from IBM and the entry of Cisco into the market three years ago, still commands approximately 50% of the blade market. The significant components of this announcement fall into four major functional buckets – improved hardware, simplified and expanded storage features, new interconnects and I/O options, and serviceability enhancements. Among the highlights are:
Direct connection of HP 3PAR storage – One of the major drawbacks for block-mode storage with blades has always been the cost of the SAN to connect it to the blade enclosure. With the ability to connect an HP 3PAR storage array directly to the c-Class enclosure without any SAN components, HP has reduced both the cost and the complexity of storage for a wide class of applications that have storage requirements within the scope of a single storage array.
New blades – With this announcement, HP fills in the gaps in their blade portfolio, announcing a new Intel Xeon EN based BL-420 for entry requirements, an upgrade to the BL-465 to support the latest AMD 16-core Interlagos CPU, and the BL-660, a new single-width Xeon E5 based 4-socket blade. In addition, HP has expanded the capacity of the sidecar storage blade to 1.5 TB, enabling an 8-server and 12 TB + chassis configuration.
Through a combination of analyst briefings and customer events, Cisco has ramped up outbound communication and marketing of its collaboration strategy in Asia Pacific over the past several months. The foundation remains video (TelePresence), webconferencing (WebEx), and IP telephony, areas where Cisco is a leader. But Cisco understands that to drive growth and expand its customer footprint within enterprise accounts, it must move further up the stack and increasingly compete with both traditional collaboration vendors like Microsoft and IBM and cloud-based alternatives like Google and salesforce.com.
While the strategy still plays to the company’s core networking strength, I question whether Cisco can position itself as a “go-to” vendor in the traditional collaboration space. As our research shows, senior IT and business decision-makers in Asia Pacific don’t currently equate Cisco with collaboration.
To address this challenge, Cisco is pursuing multiple initiatives/approaches:
Leveraging its core strengths. Cisco is focused on expanding from existing unified communications (UC) initiatives within customer accounts by leveraging the combination of networking and video to drive value. Cisco is pushing “control” via intelligent networking capabilities (e.g., security, identity management, authentication, access), all delivered through Cisco networking hardware. Simultaneously, Cisco is pushing “flexibility” via device- and platform-independent collaboration capabilities like content, video, instant messaging, and social computing.
In the latest evolution of its Linux push, IBM has added to its non-x86 Linux server line with the introduction of new dedicated Power 7 rack and blade servers that only run Linux. “Hah!” you say. “Power already runs Linux, and quite well according to IBM.” This is indeed true, but when you look at the price/performance of Linux on standard Power, the picture is not quite as advantageous, with the higher cost of Power servers compared to x86 servers offsetting much if not all of the performance advantage.
Enter the new Flex System p24L (Linux) Compute Node blade for the new PureFlex system and the IBM PowerLinuxTM 7R2 rack server. Both are dedicated Linux-only systems with 2 Power 7 6/8 core, 4 threads/core processors, and are shipped with unlimited licenses for IBM’s PowerVM hypervisor. Most importantly, these systems, in exchange for the limitation that they will run only Linux, are priced competitively with similarly configured x86 systems from major competitors, and IBM is betting on the improvement in performance, shown by IBM-supplied benchmarks, to overcome any resistance to running Linux on a non-x86 system. Note that this is a different proposition than Linux running on an IFL in a zSeries, since the mainframe is usually not the entry for the customer — IBM typically sells to customers with existing mainframe, whereas with Power Linux they will also be attempting to sell to net new customers as well as established accounts.
Next up in the 2012 lineup for the Intel E5 refresh cycle of its infrastructure offerings is Cisco, with its announcement last week of what it refers to as its third generation of fabric computing. Cisco announced a combination of tangible improvements to both the servers and the accompanying fabric components, as well as some commitments for additional hardware and a major enhancement of its UCS Manager software immediately and later in 2012. Highlights include:
New servers – No surprise here, Cisco is upgrading its servers to the new Intel CPU offerings, leading with its high-volume B200 blade server and two C-Series rack-mount servers, one a general-purpose platform and the other targeted at storage-intensive requirements. On paper, the basic components of these servers sound similar to competitors – new E5 COUs, faster I/O, and more memory. In addition to the servers announced for March availability, Cisco stated that it would be delivering additional models for ultra-dense computing and mission-critical enterprise workloads later in the year.
Fabric improvements – Because Cisco has a relatively unique architecture, it also focused on upgrades to the UCS fabric in three areas: server, enclosure, and top-level interconnect. The servers now have an optional improved virtual NIC card with support for up to 128 VLANs per adapter and two 20 GB ports per adapter. One in on the motherboard and another can be plugged in as a mezzanine card, giving up to 80 GB bandwidth to each server. The Fabric Interconnect, the component that connects each enclosure to the top-level Fabric Interconnect, has seen its bandwidth doubled to a maximum of 160 GB. The Fabric Interconnect, the top of the UCS management hierarchy and interface to the rest of the enterprise network, has been up graded to a maximum of 96 universal 10Gb ports (divided between downlinks to the blade enclosures and uplinks to the enterprise fabric.