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IBM fast-tracks updates to key middleware, Db2 for cloud era

Hoping to close the competitive gap with rivals AWS and Microsoft, IBM plans to revamp its lineup of legacy middleware products with improved cloud and AI technologies.

Under new senior management, IBM is accelerating the reinvention of its legacy middleware, starting with an AI-infused cloud version of Db2 in its ongoing game of catch-up with AWS and Microsoft.

The executive driving the company's cloud and AI-focused strategy forward is Arvind Krishna, a 30-year IBM veteran recently appointed CEO of the company. Generally considered a more capable technologist than his last few predecessors, Krishna, in an internal letter to employees, wrote that hybrid clouds and AI are "the two dominant forces driving change" for IBM customers and the entire company must have a "maniacal" focus on those technologies if it is to remain competitive.

Even with the right management and technologies in place, IBM must execute on this agenda quickly. The company has long been criticized for the glacial pace at which it moves when responding to important market trends.

"There's always been the problem of having to go up through multiple management layers to get something big approved," said one veteran IBM consultant. "But the biggest problem was going across boundaries to get multiple [IBM] divisions to agree to something. They don't have that kind of time in this day and age.''

But some analysts say IBM appears to be doing away with such bureaucratic tangles and, with Krishna defining a clearer path forward, Big Blue should be able to respond quicker to competitive challenges this time around.

"Ginni [Rometty, former IBM CEO] was a businessperson, which is fine," said Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz and Associates, an IT research and analysis firm in Needham, Mass. "But when you're making major technology changes you need a leader that gives you the assurance [they] can do it and do it with better speed of execution."

There are signs IBM is quickening the release of products to compete in cloud market. At its Think Digital virtual conference last week, IBM unwrapped its first edge computing strategy featuring several new products that work in concert with its existing hybrid cloud, AI and 5G technologies. The new offerings are built on Red Hat's OpenShift, an open source container application platform, the program that enables Big Blue products to extend across non-IBM cloud and on-premises environments.

IBM Db2 11.5.4 updates

IBM in the next month or two plans to roll out a speedier version of Db2 that can be deployed as a purely cloud-native database, according to sources familiar with the upcoming release. Integrated with the Red Hat OpenShift stack, Version 11.5.4 of Db2 will allow Db2 Graph Database users to access the Db2 engine to perform graph analytics. This means users won't have to invest in a new graph database and will avoid data migration costs.

New multi-cloud capabilities include support for IBM's Cloud Pak for Data along with support for Phase 2 Operator support on OpenShift.

"IBM finally realized their trouble was being too IBM-centric and they had to make [Db2] more 'integrable' across all platforms," said a source familiar with IBM's strategy. "That is all part and parcel of this middleware reinvention," he said. 

With the upcoming version, expected sometime this year, developers get open source driver updates, Db2 REST APIs and Python UDFs. It also permits developers to call their Python code directly, as database operations or functions and push computations closer to the data.

According to sources briefed by the company, Db2 version 11.5.4 starts up significantly faster, increasing the overall availability and performance by committing buffer pools asynchronously. It has improved security featuring JWT Token for SSO to accommodate single sign-on with third-party applications using Db2 on the back end.

While 37-year-old Db2 remains an essential product in many large corporations, some say IBM hasn't enhanced the database enough in recent years to keep pace with the rapidly changing cloud-based environments of many businesses.

"This is all about accommodating the requirements for the new generation so it can operate multiple cloud environments," said one source familiar with the company's plans. "Most of the database profits remain with mainframes in the enterprise, but IBM is doing the right thing by gravitating toward open source environments where the big banks and pharmaceuticals are going."

Cloud services rise amid pandemic

Some predict the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced many employees to work from home could permanently increase the demand for cloud services to support those workers, who are likely to continue to work remotely long-term.

"With COVID-19 continuing to cause disruptions across businesses, there isn't a company out there that doesn't realize the cloud is the only reasonable direction to go in," said Ian Campbell, president and CEO of Nucleus Research, an IT consultancy in Boston. "The quicker IBM gets their legacy [software] systems over to the cloud, the better off their customers will be."

I don't think anyone will maintain an on-premises [database] five years from now. By then we'll look at that as the horse and buggy days.
Ian CampbellPresident and CEO, Nucleus Research

While IBM continues to extend the cloud capabilities of Db2, it has yet to do the same for its other popular legacy offerings such as Information Management Systems (IMS) and CICS.

Over the past couple of years, database vendors and users alike have shifted their focus from on-premises products to cloud services. In a 2019 Gartner report called "The Future of the DBMS Market Is Cloud," the market researcher said cloud is now the default platform for managing data and on-premises products represent the past. The report also stated that the overwhelming amount of technical innovation in the database market is "cloud-first and/or cloud only development."

According to Gartner, database cloud services accounted for $10.4 billion of the $46.1 billion market, with the overall market growing 18.4% in 2018. Cloud databases accounted for 68% of that growth, according to the report. The lion's share of the overall growth was split between AWS and Microsoft Azure.

"I don't think anyone will continue to maintain an on-premises [database] five years from now," Campbell said. "By then we'll look at that as the horse and buggy days."

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