RealTime IT News

IBM's Info Management Plan

Reporter's Notebook: As part of my daily coverage, I've watched IBM make a lot of purchases on the software side of their broad business over the last few years.

Viewed as one-offs, the buys didn't seem to come together.

IBM nabbed Endeca and iPhrase for enterprise search technologies.

The Ascential Software buy was one of the biggest. It had to do with IBM's desire to transform, integrate and "cleanse" data.

Sounds like an arcane computer science. Data cleansing involves purging data of garbled code that can impede the creation of accurate, relevant information.

The do-it-all vendor even picked up SRD, which made its name selling software to help casinos and government law enforcers net crooks.

The buys seemed off the beaten path of the company's fare of traditional computer software building blocks: IBM had the look of a dentist filling software cavities with companies.

I didn't know what to think of this strategy, except that perhaps IBM's older software products were going soft, rotten and weak. Had WebSphere, DB2, Tivoli, Lotus and Rational decayed?

Had IBM resigned itself to filling the cavities of its software division?

A Big Blue event in New York City last week provided the Novocain that altered my perspective.

IBM executives addressed the challenge of rendering information management on demand. The idea is that, with data flowing from myriad devices connected to the Web, businesses are struggling to manage this data and turn it into usable information.

In explaining how "information can be used as a strategic asset," IBM Senior Vice President Steve Mills said information management could be a $69 billion market by 2009.

He also illustrated how the company's search and integration technologies can contribute to fighting crime and helping financial institutions.

Mills said IBM's software can be used to help city police fight crime in real time. In one scenario, put together by the New York Police Department, which culled information from several real crime cases, he said a police call reported that someone had been shot.

The only available information the wounded victim could provide was that there were two male perpetrators. One of the perpetrators had a tattoo of a grim reaper and the other called him "Shorty."

The tattoo and the nickname were entered into a computer database, where IBM's software was used to scroll through millions of files to produce a list of suspects associated with the criteria.

In one real case, Wachovia used IBM's integration technologies to merge millions of customer files from different pieces of software to deliver effective information on loans and mortgages.

The data was federated to get a common view, and IBM's search technologies were used to ferret out specific files.

Mills then announced a $1 billion investment to improve these technologies, along with a couple of new search-oriented information management products.

"If you have to sift millions of records very, very fast, you have to come up with performance capabilities in real time that deal with enormous quantities of information," Mills said.

Then came the selling point: "You need IBM technology for tagging data, understanding data, organizing it and putting it in a form where you determine the relationships in that information, what's relevant and how do you sift out the noise to get an answer."

Ginni Rometty, head of IBM business consulting services, discussed how her services team is working with Mills' software team in this endeavor. A customer panel of administrators from a handful of industries praised IBM's progress in managing information.

Gartner analyst David Cearley, who moderated the panel, told me that IBM pulled a lot of different technologies together from acquisitions in 2005 to form a coherent strategy and an integrated set of assets.

"Whereas most of the other vendors, including SAP and Oracle, were still focusing on individual pieces of the information puzzle, like master data management, IBM began to think about information as a broader concept and a strategic asset," Cearley said.

"The key differentiation for IBM is they have more of the individual pieces, plus the heavy service arm, so it's the breadth across a number of areas, partnered with the number of acquisitions of software leaders in sub-sectors that we're looking at."

Cearley said the challenge lies in taking independent, disparate technologies and breaking down the technical barriers between those to find common approaches.

Hearing that, my consensus is that it's too early to tell how IBM will fare with its latest approach. Failure can come from the usual variety of angles that arise from multiple integrations of disparate products.

But IBM has integrated myriad purchases before to create attractive offerings for customers. Just look at the Rational Software purchase or PricewaterhouseCoopers.

So I'm beginning to be more of a believer, even as IBM continues to add more fillings to strengthen its software teeth.