How Containers and Microservices Enable Cloud’s Next Frontier: Q&A with IBM’s Jim Comfort

At its Think 2019 conference in San Francisco, IBM emphasized approaches for enterprises beginning the next chapter of their cloud journeys. According to IBM, while 20% of companies have gotten the "easy," cloud-native workloads up and running, they are still grappling with how and whether to migrate more complex, critical workloads. Hybrid cloud—which IBM CEO Ginny Rometty recently estimated will become  a $1 trillion market by 2020—is viewed as a key approach for migrating and managing more difficult scenarios.

With cloud now accounting for more than 20% of IBM's revenue, and plans underway to acquire Red Hat for $34 billion, IBM’s GM of GTS Cloud Services Jim Comfort talked with BDQ about why hybrid cloud and open source are becoming a strategic part of today’s business environment. 

IBM has shifted its branding for cloud to simply IBM Cloud. What is the significance?

Jim Comfort: The shift to IBM Cloud happened about a year and half ago. IBM has three fundamental business models. We sell products; consumable services such as IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS; and we sell managed services—so when IBM talks about the cloud business there are usually pieces in all three. There are specific products, like all of our container capabilities and cloud management tools; services such as a container service, the capabilities that are consumed around that; and then we have the services that pull that together for clients.

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"As [Red Hat] OpenShift becomes the consistent substate for Kubernetes—and with RHEL [Red Hat Enterprise Linux] the dominant Linux footprint, and Linux the dominant OS, and RHEL dominant on AWS, Azure, IBM Cloud, and on-prem—then, every RHEL footprint becomes OpenShift, and every OpenShift footprint becomes a platform that is consistent for this container evolution."
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How are organizations shaping their cloud strategies?

JC: Our value to clients at the end of the day is in helping them transform.  For most clients today, it is manifested as a digital transformation journey, which means that they have to move much faster, work with new data sources, obtain better insights, and improve their business decisions.

What is changing?

JC: What we are seeing change in the market is that the reality of what it takes to effect the digital transformation enabled by cloud is being enhanced. Companies have stepped back and realized that there are so many dimensions to the change, some of which is the technology and much of which is culture, skills, and other dimensions. But they realize that they have to take a more holistic approach and that plays to the strength of IBM because we can help them at all three levels of our business model.

How so?

JC: Number one, the market has matured and organizations are focusing more on transforming their businesses, leveraging technology rather than on the technology side.

They realize that their cloud strategy has to be framed in business terms: top line, bottom line, revenue, market access, speed, and not in technology terms because if they frame it in technology terms they will be trapped in the religious wars of technology that never ends.  So that is one discussion.

And the next?

JC: The second discussion is that if there is a business strategy, what should the concerns be? The infrastructure architecture will change, the application architecture fundamentally needs to change—and that is the whole microservices discussion.  DevOps and development processes have to change, and security and compliance models need to dramatically change—inclusive of data governance. And, finally, how you manage and operate these environments needs to change.  

Why is that so difficult?

JC: If we take those five dimensions—infrastructure, DevOps, security, compliance, and operations—in most enterprises, those five components don’t come together until they reach the CEO level. Some of those are under the CIO, some are under lines of business, some of those are under the chief data officer, and some are under the CISO. But having coordinated approaches across those five areas is key, and this is where we focus a lot of what we do to help clients.

How does it all come together?

JC: There are many pieces on the client side and many pieces of IBM to create what we call our “garage methodology” to have an experiential, co-creation engagement model which is very different than a product sale or catalog of APIs. It is a much more engaged discussion that helps the client realize all the components that come together, and understand and use that to build the skills necessary. And then, as they build those skills and that muscle and capability, that is when they can accelerate their transformation. But if you only pick one dimension, such as infrastructure, and you only talk about moving model A to model B you don’t get that effect.

More recently, IBM has put a sharp focus on hybrid cloud.

JC: I have spent time with hundreds of enterprises and they all end up at the same end-state architecture. The more you can get everything on the most modern architecture with the most modern capabilities and microservices, and cloud-native design—the better. But, the reality for most clients is that there is going to be a mix, and they will end up with four segments to their environment. One is their traditional, virtualized, legacy estate that has to be dramatically modernized and automated because that is where the bulk of leverage is but it is not affordable or practical to move 100% of that over any reasonable amount of time. They will leverage container/Kubernetes/Docker capabilities as a mechanism to microservices, independent of whether it is on- or off-prem. They will have a certain amount of external cloud consumption; and then they will need to have a management frame that sits across that. Every enterprise is on a journey and they will eventually end up with all four of those pieces.

And what is the balance of that composition?

We did a survey with 175 clients over a couple of different sectors and asked them what they thought the mix will be at the end of 5 years. The answer is generally 40%-50% will still be in the on-prem/virtual/optimized world; 20%-30% will be in the consumed IaaS world; and 20%-30% will be in the consumed SaaS world. So, 50/30/20 or 50/20/30—whichever way you see it. And then clients need to manage that estate. When we talk about hybrid, by definition, that means some in each and that is really where we see clients ending up.

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"Portability isn’t really day-to-day arbitrage. It is about optimizing for 1 year from now, or 2 years from now, and if there is a future need to move workloads to a new company, a new country, or to divest—there is no need to redesign.  You can design once and have a lot of flexibility and that is what is resonating."
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As far as the cloud portion, are they using more than one vendor?

JC: Most will have two or three, not one, on the external IaaS/PaaS consumption side, and use as many as five to 10 for external SaaS consumption. When we talk about hybrid, we are embracing multi-cloud.

What has happened, though is that today, multi-cloud means three providers on-prem and they each have a different operating model, a different set of cloud-native services, and organizations are realizing that it is a very complicated world. They don’t want to be locked into one, but if they use multiple providers, there is no consistency—and so this brings us back to the container approach.

How do containers factor in?

JC: What has really changed in the market is the realization that if you center your enterprise architecture on a more standardized definition—Kubernetes/Docker/containers/cloud—where you control the choices that you make in those environments such that they are portable, you can actually have a container environment on-prem that can also run on the IBM Cloud, AWS, Azure, or whatever you want. You are normalized on the Kubernetes and containerization dimension and there is a lot of power in that.

In what way?

JC: The first is that you don’t have to couple the changing of your technology with the deployment model. You can host the container service side by side with your mainframe, with your virtual estate—with whatever you want. You can transform the entire estate into a container model, independent of deployment models, so you don’t have to deal with all the network and security concerns.

We see most enterprises saying that they can’t have four different end states but they also don’t want just one.  Containerization helps them to evolve to a different definition of multi-cloud which is one architecture, one design that can be deployed anywhere—and that is resonating very strongly with clients.

How does Red Hat fit into IBM’s vision of a hybrid future?

JC: As [Red Hat] OpenShift becomes the consistent substate for Kubernetes—and with RHEL [Red Hat Enterprise Linux] the dominant Linux footprint, and Linux the dominant OS, and RHEL dominant on AWS, Azure, IBM Cloud, and on-prem—then, every RHEL footprint becomes OpenShift, and every OpenShift footprint becomes a platform that is consistent for this container evolution. This allows  organizations, by designing once to those standards, to have tremendous flexibility.

What people really want is a flexible and portable environment with a dramatic ecosystem of innovation.  The container/OpenShift story is resonating strongly because people will have flexibility through time.

It enables portability for the future.

JC: Portability isn’t really day-to-day arbitrage. It is about optimizing for 1 year from now, or 2 years from now, and if there is a future need to move workloads to a new company, a new country, or to divest—there is no need to redesign.  You can design once and have a lot of flexibility and that is what is resonating.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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