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At IBM, big data management is big -- really big

IBM's big data management projects rely on its Blue Insight cloud and Cognos analytics software, which turn data into optimized business processes.

If your IT organization is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of data coming into your company, and is struggling to manage all of it or take advantage of it, just ask Jeanette Horan what her day is like.

Horan, CIO at IBM, is responsible for systems that handle 180,000 users per day. Add to those a global network that touches 170 countries and you can begin to understand that most businesses in any industry are not like IBM when it comes to big data management.

"The business of services is people. So, when you look at the number of people we are hiring, in different locations, different countries, trying to keep track of all of that, it really reflects the scale of IBM operations -- the number of businesses we are in, the number of countries we are in. People just seem to have this thirst for data," said Horan, who has just completed her first year as CIO after replacing longtime CIO Pat Toole.

IBM's ultimate power user

IBM CIO Jeanette Horan calls her group IBM's "most challenging user." Like all good users, the group is trying to be partners with the supplier. In this case, that's the IBM Software group.

"Generally, if there is a new product that we are going to deploy, we will usually do it in a kind of pilot mode, and give feedback to the Software group," she said. "Maybe it's new features; but more often than not, it's scalability- or performance-type issues that we are working with them on initially. Sometimes we develop new features that we then give back to the group."

But also like a good customer, IBM's IT department is not going to rush into an upgrade it might not need or want at the time.

"When we got started with Blue Insight, we were running Cognos 8," Horan said. "That was the version that was out at the time. We are now planning to get on Cognos 10; and to tell you the truth, we are a bit of a laggard on that at this point in time, for two reasons. One is that my team was so busy trying to deal with this demand from the business that they didn't have time to think about operating the platform. The other is that, as we were deploying Cognos 8 there were issues that we wanted them to 'fix' with performance and scalability that we wanted to get into a 10-dot-something release before we would upgrade. So, we weren't just spending the money to upgrade and not moving ourselves forward in terms of capability."


IBM's Blue Insight private cloud project (which Toole ushered in) and Cognos business analytics software have enabled it to keep up with the load, even though Horan says that IBM is constantly adding new capacity to meet the demand from the business. Another ongoing challenge is keeping track of all the company's information warehouses, she said -- admitting that it took a while to locate them -- and finding opportunities to consolidate.

In the past year, IBM has added its SPSS predictive analytics software to the cloud environment. "People are not using all of the capabilities of SPSS [from a company IBM acquired in 2009] yet, internally," Horan said. "There are some teams of power users, if you think about our supply chain organization, as an example, that are trying to optimize inventory, predict demand and all of those kinds of projects."

Big data management 'TOPs' the IBM agenda

The first is the new Territory Optimization Program (TOP), which models new business environments and ways to optimize the revenue opportunity for those environments in terms of staffing and other deployed resources. The real challenge for a company like IBM is not how to get intelligence out of the data, but how to use the data to help expand the business. For instance, IBM is pinning its aggressive growth strategy on new accounts and new business.

"We believe that if you look at the skills that you have in your sales force and map that to market data, you could deliver better business results," Horan said. "You really want to look at where the emerging opportunity is. We are opening new branch offices in Africa. Historically, in Africa we relied on local business partners, and now we are opening IBM offices there. So, what kind of sales people do they need? Software sales people, hardware sales people, services sales people? And how can I look at all the market data and what the business opportunity is? And how can I identify where I have skills and what are the skills that I need, and then to be able to map that?"

TOP saves time and money by determining the right mix for the right market. Finding that mix otherwise would have had to be accomplished by trial and error.

"This is a really interesting partnership with the business," said Horan, who rose through the ranks of IBM through the Lotus Software division. "What we have found is that the territories that have adopted this program are delivering better business results -- they are beating their peers by 10% in terms of their revenue performance. That's an amazing proof point -- that if you really can take the data and think about how you can use it, you can really deliver a different business result."

The other big data management project is called the Resource Analytics Hub. Like TOP, it's designed to optimize the business of providing enterprise services.

"You have to get [people] and the right skills to the right project. That's what it's all about. Today, 50%of our business comes from services. That's $50 billion. That's a huge number. And think about how many people that involves, actually about half the IBM company," Horan said. "We take that, and all the information about all current projects, where people are assigned and what their respective roles are. We marry that with the services backlog and projections. When are the right skills coming off-project, and therefore where do I need to go hire -- by region, by skill set -- so we can get ahead of it? So, when a project starts we have the right people and the right resources ready to go?"

Figuring out ways to get the most out of data ultimately comes down to statisticians and people with doctorates. Perhaps that's where IBM does have a lot more resources to throw at a problem than most companies do. "Their role in life, if you like, is to help the business see the art of the possible," Horan said. And it's her job to make the possible happen.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Scot Petersen, Editorial Director.

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