IBM's Steve Mills on RealTime

millsAs we prepare for our next RealTime CrunchUp on November 20th in San Francisco, we’re seeing if anything an acceleration of the phenomenon known as RealTime. Startups, cloud platform vendors, the open standards community, and virtually every software and hardware category are being refreshed and reinvented in the new model. And while there are many familiar players talking and to some degree walking the RealTime walk, some have been busy for years building and deploying the fundamentals of this “overnight success.”

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Las Vegas to attend IBM’s Information On Demand conference, and took the opportunity to sit down with Big Blue’s Steve Mills, Senior Vice President and Group Executive of the IBM Software Group. In English that adds up to Steve being The Man at the helm of IBM’s embrace of Web Services, with the software group accounting for one quarter of IBM’s $100 billion business. While others have partied down on Web 2.0 and its various social themes in perhaps a more outward facing way, it turns out IBM is very focused in the same areas, albeit with an eye toward leveraging its deep relationships with the enterprise.

If raw information accounts for the lion’s share of useful data, IBM’s investment in analytics and “mining the nuggets” suggests the company’s history of eating its own dog food with early realtime technologies like Notes and Sametime will bear fruit as IBM begins to share its best practices with customers. But what of the TwitterSphere, the social media stream of micromessages — does IBM see what they call sentiment analysis as a different animal than the internal data that runs corporate systems? Mills says yes, citing IT and regulatory concerns about closely held data leaking across the firewall.

But when I cite competitors such as Salesforce who are rapidly harnessing social relatime data with their CRM and SFA applications, Mills says IBM is doing the same thing with its Lotus Connections technology when customers ask for it. “You have to allow these scenarios to exist if the company wants that scenario,” Mills says, noting that some companies would rather enable what they can’t stop and take advantage of the wave without being overwhelmed by it.

Mills says about half the IBM population microblogs today, using incremental additions to Sametime built not on open source but what Mills delineates as open standards. He sees microblogging as a way of triggering people finding people, with swarming around topics and events producing positive collisions. When I suggest he and his troops are real adopters of realtime, he suggests the word “fanatics.” This is a long-time IBM strategy of amortizing its development (and acquistion in the case of Lotus) costs with internal usage, then rolling the results of that experience out to its army of customers.

Mills was not sure companies would be ready for this free-wheeling technology in the face of regulations and data governance, but was pleasantly surprised when it took off like a rocket. “Businesses were more ready for it than we had thought,” and Mills sees a fairly profound shift as RealTime takes hold. “What’s acceptable to people today is probably something beyond anything they thought they would be doing ten years ago.”

As avid users of the stuff, IBM’s view is that the speed of the stream is not so much to be coped with as to allow the interactions to occur. “There is tremendous value if your company has a culture of problem solving…. There are cultures that are very internally competitive… that don’t want to share,” Mills debates. And he knows where Big Blue comes down on this, saying there’s no company in the world more prolific in its use of collaborative technologies.

IBM continues to invest in predictive analytics across structured and unstructured data, and IOD attendance was strong as companies began to flesh their IT muscles as the recession appears to be abating. The efficiencies of information management hold up well in tough economic times, and IOD featured many sessions and demonstrations of SPSS and earlier acquisition Cognos working together to reduce municipal costs by predicting crime and fraud and shifting resources to combat those drains on budgets.

For Mills, the experiment begun 10 years ago formerly known as Web Services has been wildly successful. The mix of service oriented architectures (SOA), Web 2.0, social media, ubiquitous bandwidth, and low cost microprocessor technology allow us to instrument and analyze the world around us as we’ve never done before. Is it good for IBM too? Mills says IT has always made its own market. “This is the most adaptive tool that mankind’s every created…. Who would have thought this would have been a $1.2 trillion industry?” That could double in size in 10 years, he predicts, as operating and capital expense from other unrelated areas get converted over into IT.