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IBM World of Watson: Turning Big Data into Big Money – A View From the Floor

Coming to the 1st Ever IBM World of Watson (WoW) was an imperative for any mainframe/Big Data hybrid professional like me.  Old school and new school colliding under IBM’s new business unit and sub-brand, Watson.

I remember Watson’s origins and even poked fun at him a little back then (via a parody video interview with Hollywood’s greatest mainframe, HAL 9000).  Seeing a “Powernap in progress” sign in front of Watson reinforced his non-mainframe status. I also remember dismissing this “not quite a mainframe” as just the latest game-playing successor to Deep Blue. A new “Silicon Alley” HQ and a billion dollar investment later and Watson was poised to be more than a Jeopardy champion. In fact, an uber theme of the show was “turning Big Data into big money,” and clearly IBM is working on many cool ways to do just that.

Monetizing Data

Turning “Big Data” into big money was a major theme at IBM World of Watson

Flash forward a couple years to 2016 and Watson, like the industry, has evolved.  “Big Data” has gone from an interesting but mostly-hype concept, to actually having use cases in the consumer world and in B2B and the public sector like those from new Big Data players like Splunk. Natural language interaction between man and computer has become commonplace, what with Siri, Echo, Cortana, et al.  Unlike Watson, IBM’s voice is now a female one, and that still feels surreal to many and is just as cool and important as Watson’s evolution.

Back to the show – this Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas-based show looked good with many interesting booths and Watson-powered devices and applications on display and a clean, white-background appearance that looked like a sci-fi movie set in 2020.  The big keynotes were across town, including a well-received one from CEO Ginni Rometty, with attendees often choosing the streaming option to the physical bus alternative. Should spurning a bus ride and “in-person” experience for a virtual one at an artificial intelligence-themed event have surprised anyone?  I think not.

Speaking of vehicles, one highlight of the show was Olli, the autonomous, a Watson-powered mini-bus which drove willing attendees around a curvy track with no driver in sight.   The popcorn stand at Olli’s boarding area made this trip to the near future a comfortable, even pleasant one.

Olli vehicle

The Watson-powered, driver-free mini-bus, Olli the autonomous vehicle was a show favorite.

Watson’s ingestion of Weather Underground data made for a fascinating experience at their booth and they’ve announced a new Bot for Facebook Messenger that will learn Facebook user preferences to provide personalized weather conditions, forecasts, news content and who knows what else!

Watson’s presence in a small drone inspecting an actual cell-phone tower for anomalies by instantly comparing images of it with thousands of others to look for anomalies was impossible not to watch there.

New developments in DB2 for z/OS were of interest for me and they made a compelling case for it as being very relevant for “big data” analytics.  With my own company’s recent foray into workload-centric DB2 optimization, I wanted to know more about DB2 for z/OS and certainly got the opportunity at WoW.  In addition, I have to say I was impressed by how many mainframe-related sessions there were at the show (although perhaps my expectations weren’t all that high).

At this first WoW, there were in fact over 1,500 sessions, plus immersive activities called “cognitive experiences, including one I tried in which I wore virtual reality goggles and was inside a honey bee farm and a hive!  The farm, of course, used Watson’s weather knowledge to learn exactly when and by which route to best transport new hives of bees to safely get them to places that desperately needed pollination.

A see-through z13 mainframe is always a welcome sight and of course required a visit and Q&A with its keepers.  I was interested in seeing a zIIP processor up close and voilà, he handed me one!  Hard to believe such a tiny piece of hardware could be the vehicle for such big savings.

Some interesting job titles mingled with mainframe IT and other traditional IT roles, including data scientists, predictive modelers and even cognitive application developers.  Their goal was almost universally the same – to better understand how to extract useful insights from the never-ending streams of data pouring into ever-growing pools of big data.

There was no shortage of opportunities for them and others to get hands-on experience with Apache Spark, Hadoop, and of course Watson.  Time to wake up from your nap big guy!

Those groups of mainframe IT, distributed IT, business IT, and big data professionals also eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to connect with other IT and data professionals who faced the same professional challenges as they did, as well as learn about what the other groups are doing in their day-to-day. That alone showed the power of WoW to change things, right?

Overall this event, once called IBM Information On-Demand and later IBM Insight, was trying very hard to say two things: “We care about bettering society” and “We’re wearing the big data pants now!”  In some ways, IBM succeeded as this first WoW was a bold, but imperfect step into an uncertain and very different future for IT’s last remaining “founding father.”  I saw evidence of tools to deliver truly actionable insights based in big data from mainframes, servers, devices and more, but I also heard the skeptics muttering they’d only believe it when they saw it live, in their shop.  I also saw what appeared to be a genuine focus on working with other organizations to deliver cognitive, Watson-powered applications that make the human experience rich and more fulfilling.  Definitely not the IBM I remember or would have forecasted but one I want to watch.

Finally, seeing and hearing a CEO who is very different than her predecessors eloquently lay out the new vision for IBM was an impressive sight to all that saw her, whether live and in-person, streamed on a device, or as translated by Watson himself.

What’s up next? This week, at Guide Share UK Conference 2016 (November 1-2), Syncsort will be demonstrating Ironstream integration with Splunk IT Service Intelligence, along with its other key Big Iron to Big Data solutions, including its new mainframe performance optimization software for IBM DB2® and CA IDMS™ from the recent acquisition of Cogito.  Demos will take place in booth 13.

Syncsort CEO Josh Rogers recently talked about the growing need for products that solve Big Iron to Big Data challenges, including the latest addition to Ironstream that brings mainframe data to Splunk’s IT Service Availability (ITSI) application and the new performance optimization software from the Cogito acquisition.

Watson takes a "power nap"

While powerful, unlike a mainframe, Watson requires naps

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