Last week we paid our third visit in as many years to IBM’s Impact SOA conference. Comparing notes, if 2007’s event was about engaging the business, and 2008 was about attaining the basic blocking and tackling to get transaction system-like performance and reliability, this year’s event was supposed to provide yet another forum for pushing IBM’s Smarter Planet corporate marketing. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
Of course, given that conventional wisdom or hype has called 2009 the year of the cloud (e.g., here and here), it shouldn’t be surprising that cloud-related announcements grabbed the limelight. To recap: IBM announced WebSphere Cloudburst, an appliance that automates rapid deployment of WebSphere images to the private cloud (whatever that is — we already provided our two cents on that) and it released IBM’s BlueWorks, a new public cloud service for white boarding business processes that is IBM’s answer to Lombardi Blueprints.
But back to our regularly scheduled program, IBM has been pushing Smarter Planet since the fall. It came in the wake of a period when rapid run-up and volatility in natural resource prices and global instability prompted renewed discussions over sustainability that are at decibel levels not heard since the late 70s. A Sam Palmisano speech delivered before the Council on Foreign relations last November laid out what have since become IBM’s standard talking points. The gist of IBM’s case is that the world is more instrumented and networked than ever, which in turn provides the nervous system so we can make the world a better, cleaner, and for companies, a more profitable place. A sample: 67% of electrical power generation is lost to network inefficiencies during a period of national debate in setting up smart grids.
IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign is hardly anything new. It builds on Metcalfe’s law, which posits that the value of a network is the square of the numbers of new users that join it. Put another way, a handful of sensors provides only narrow slices of disjoint data; fill that network in with hundreds or thousands of sensors, add some complex event processing logic to it, and now you not only can deduce what’s happening, but do things like predict what will happen or provide economic incentives that change human behavior so that everything comes out copasetic. Smarter Planet provides a raison d’etre for IBM’s Business Events Processing initiatives that it began struggling to get its arms around last fall. It also tries to make use of IBM’s capacity for extreme scale computing, but also prods it to establish relationships with new sets of industrial process control and device suppliers that are quite different from the world of ISVs and systems integrators.
So, if you instrumented the grid, you could take advantage of transient resources such as winds that this hour might be gusting in the Dakotas, and in the next hour, in the Texas Panhandle, so that you could even out generation to the grid and supplant more expensive gas-fired generation in Chicago. Or, as described by a Singaporean infrastructure official at the IBM conference, you can apply sensors to support congestion pricing, which rations scarce highway capacity based on demand, with the net result that it ramps up prices to what the market will bear at rush hour and funnel those revenues to expanding the subway system (too bad New York dropped the ball when a similar opportunity presented itself last year). The same principle could make supply chains far more transparent and driven by demand with real-time predictive analytics if you somehow correlate all that RFID data. The list of potential opportunities, which optimize consumption of resources in a resource-constrained economy, are limited by the imagination.
In actuality, what IBM described is a throwback to common practices established in highly automated industrial process facilities, where closed-loop process control has been standard practice for decades. Take oil refineries for example. The facilities required to refine crude are extremely capital-intensive, the processes are extremely complex and intertwined, and the scales of production so huge that operators have little choice but to run their facilities flat out 24 x 7. With margins extremely thin, operators are under the gun to constantly monitor and tweak production in real time so it stays in the sweet spot where process efficiency, output, and costs are optimized. Such data is also used for predictive trending to prevent runaway reactions and avoid potential safety issues such as a dangerous build-up of pressure in a distillation column.
So at base, a Smarter Planet is hardly a radical idea; it seeks to emulate what has been standard practice in industrial process control going back at least 30 years.