CloudNOW Interviews: Lauren States, IBM VP of Cloud Computing

By Seema Jethani and Lori MacVittie

Very few organizations have the insight that comes from longevity and are able to bring that experience to bear in new and emerging markets. IBM is one of them. That means when IBM makes a statement with respect to the (near and far) future of computing, it’s almost always more than prognostication, it’s pragmatism based on real experience.

In that regard, IBM has consistently moved forward with cloud computing using measured strides across its portfolio of products and services, recognizing that the technology evolution often outpaces readies for adoption, if not interest. Its long history with organizations large and small ensures that IBM understands the challenges of adopting new technology, not just from a technical perspective but from a business perspective as well.

Lauren States, Vice President, Cloud Computing at IBM and a member of the CloudNOW advisory board, interviews with CloudNOW and reiterates that perspective. Lauren’s long experience at IBM – from her initial position as a Systems Engineer in New York City through roles in sales and marketing – has resulted in a unique blend of technical and business expertise that is  invaluable when evaluating cloud computing and its role within the enterprise.

CloudNOW: What do you think the top 3-5 trends are in cloud technologies that executives should have on their radar? 

Ms.States: IBM conducts an annual CIO survey to stay current on the latest issues on their minds. In the last survey, we asked over 3000 CIO’s – “What visionary plans do you have to increase competitiveness over the next 3 to 5 years?” Business intelligence and analytics, mobility, virtualization and cloud computing were the top four, with collaboration and social networking mentioned next by 55% of the respondents.

The potential of these trends is tremendous. The topic at hand is how to get started so the technology can be exploited for business advantage. This requires a serious look at what can be moved to the cloud now (business processes, applications and infrastructure), what adoption patterns exist that can be applied to get the benefit of cloud economics and what leverage can be gained. Over the next three years, the breadth and depth of workloads moving to the cloud is expected to expand greatly.  Both applications and infrastructure will need to coexist in the enterprise, and the public cloud.

Data and information integration technologies will make it possible to generate insight from vast quantities of data. The way organizations manage data will fundamentally change. This means filtering petabytes of data per second from almost any connected device, analyzing the data while still in motion, deciding what, if any, data must be stored, and even using analytics tools to virtually integrate that data with data stored in traditional warehouses. Organizations will be able to integrate and analyze unstructured data wherever it lives—including the Internet—without overwhelming enterprise data warehouses.

The ability of an enterprise to generate insights from data will require optimized systems specifically architected for that task. To maximize performance and efficiency, these systems will be optimized at every layer of the technology stack to exploit unique processor, memory and storage characteristics. Watson is a good example of this (http://ibmwatson.com)

CloudNOW: What do you think the top tends in cloud are in the short term; let’s say from now until the next 12 months? …. And beyond that?

Ms. States: Interoperability and portability are key considerations for the adoption of cloud. The ease of integration of cloud services with the existing services within the enterprise will be critical in managing costs. Portability of services allows for flexibility of services between services providers. Attaining the necessary levels of portability and interoperability requires standards for cloud and understanding the choices available as the technologies mature. This is one of the most important discussions for the long-term success of cloud.  If ignored, it is an area that can cause a major impact later on as new services are considered, for example, extraordinary integration costs and extended implementation times.

Enterprises have most likely made significant investments in infrastructure and technologies such as SOA.  There is no reason to start over.  Adopting an architecture that recognizes and leverages these investments as well as the range of cloud delivery models will go a long way towards setting future initiatives on the right path.

CloudNOW: Do you have any insights into areas of convergences (e.g. social, mobile, cloud) for the technologies you listed above? 

Ms. States: Yes, we already see, for example, the convergence of technologies like social media, analytics and cloud.  Take the example of how we use these technologies in our everyday professional lives.  We are using social media in completely new ways to collaborate with each other and to generate and analyze vast amounts of data. Social media really is a cloud technology.  It’s simply the front-end (and theoretically user friendly) to a cloud back-end.  Social media doesn’t exist without cloud and it has major implications to business.

Let me give you an example of how a large shoe manufacturer uses the social media. Today instead of developing a new product by test marketing a prototype…they put their design information on the social media, monitor and analyze it and within hours they know whether or not they have a winning product. And they know what changes to make to the product before they send it to the manufacturer.

This fundamental shift in how they do business is enabled by the convergence of social media, cloud and analytics. As a result, they can change their business models improve productivity, serve their customers better and grow revenue and profit.

CloudNOW: Do you think we can expect a similar path to migration for these technologies as we saw in 2.0, with consumer applications gaining acceptance then driving business migration?

Ms. States: The consumerization of IT is definitely driving the transformation of IT. Over 80% of US clients believe that their organizations will have transformed at least half of their IT environments to a cloud-like model within five years. Many are also experiencing pressure from non-IT areas looking to maximize the effectiveness of the organization. The marketing and sales teams see cloud computing as a vehicle to get closer to their target audiences, thereby improving revenues (and profits). The finance team views cloud as a way to reduce costs. Nowadays, sales, financial and other areas of the enterprise are tech savvy and are taking an active interest in IT.

As CIO’s drive transformation, they leverage the cloud for efficiency – and on the journey they consolidate data centers, virtualize the infrastructure, standardize the application portfolio and automate business processes. This allows them to deploy innovative new applications and services – important for the future of the organization.

IBM is a great case study of what I am talking about. Our IT transformation began with a massive consolidation of 155 data centers to 5; 16,000 applications to 4,500. We capitalized on open standards and virtualization. We leveraged cloud to share resources and to provide rapid scaling and self-service. We transformed our intranet into robust social networking platform using Web 2.0 to fuel collaboration, with over 125,000 employees participating in emerging technology pilots and projects.  As a result, we’ve achieved $1.5B in IT savings since 2005 and we’ve delivered 80% energy cost savings.

CloudNOW: Of the trends we have discussed, which do you think are the most realistic and have the largest commercial benefit?  Which will be the largest moneymakers?

Ms. States: Ah, well that’s the heart of my job in corporate strategy – and the real interesting part of the work – looking at markets, understanding customer requirements, comparing ourselves against other vendors and providers, evaluating how technologies and solutions leverage our expertise and insight and align with our brand value proposition.

Cloud computing itself already has huge commercial benefits. The question that the market will answer is “Will cloud be priced as a commodity?”  The answer to that will determine how much money can be made.  Mobile will be the way most of the world accesses the cloud.  Mobile hardware is already a commodity. The software and services (and the applications running on the cloud) will be big moneymakers.

Obviously that’s not all we’re working on, but for the rest, you’ll have to stay tuned!

CloudNOW: Are there any wildcards that have the risk of being “flops”, but could be also be potential game changers?

Ms. States: IBM invests a lot of money on research, so we’re constantly working on dozens of new technologies that may or may not pan out in a big way. IBM Research often makes what we call “Big Bets” in areas like business analytics and “Grand Challenges” like the IBM Watson and the Jeopardy! Challenge.  The opportunity to push the state of the art forward significantly makes it worth the investment risk.

Security and vulnerability management is another game changer given the impact and visibility of security breaches on the entire organization. You’ll see trusted computing technology mature and be applied to cloud. Computer hardware will be able to detect if the software or firmware has been tampered with by a piece of malware or a hacker. If so, it will keep the system from running the bad code.  Security analytics will enable enterprises to detect or predict and thwart cyber attacks, including attacks that have never been seen before.

CloudNOW: Are there any major differences across markets or regions with regards to these trends?

Ms. States: Yes – mobile computing will be highly leveraged in conjunction with the cloud in emerging markets where infrastructure is being built out. We’re also seeing regional clouds emerge to address the specific requirements of a region or a nation, including legal issues as to where data is stored.

CloudNOW: The speed of innovation in cloud continues to accelerate at such a rapid pace – how will companies deal with the challenges of more interdependencies and complexities (often security related)?  How can they prepare for these challenges in advance?

Ms. States: Pace is definitely one of the challenges of cloud. But it is important to remember that cloud computing is a journey and will continue to evolve. Ensuring a successful adoption involves making a series considered decisions. An initial list, but not exhaustive, of the steps to making the best decisions include:

•             Assemble and educate the decision team.

•             Develop a strategic plan that provides vision beyond what is needed today.

•             Understand the role cloud standards will play.

•             Establish the agreement with the Cloud Provider(s) – both internal and external – to ensure that the services provided meet expectations.

•             Establish metrics to validate that cloud services are being delivered to expectations and service level agreements.

The security issues will be worked out.  Customers will expect solutions that address risk and compliance requirements, security threats and an increasingly mobile workforce and customers.

CloudNOW: Following along the lines of the speed of innovation – what do you think is driving this?  Do you feel that the customer needs are leading or that the technology is charting the direction?

Ms. States: What’s cool about cloud isn’t the technology. We can discuss the technology itself all day long. Much of it is evolutionary. But I’ve seen it mature to the point where we can do things with it that we couldn’t do before.

Personally, what I like best about the cloud is that I can carry it around in my handbag. The cloud lets me bank, shop, read, play games, work, talk to my family, build my professional network – all through my mobile device without me having to understand the many technologies behind it. That’s really exciting.

Cloud puts power in the hands of the end user, and that can lead to a better financial equation for IT because of higher adoption rates and less under-utilization of resources. This will enable us to do more – personally and professionally.   Today, we’re getting a glimpse of the future. We don’t know how the story ends, but it’s very exciting.

CloudNOW: How did you get started in tech?

Lauren States : My dad recommended that I attend The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania to study business. It was one of the best decisions of my career. My major, Decision Sciences, gave me a strong foundation in business, analytical and technology skills that have served me throughout my entire career.

My senior year, IBM came on campus to interview for pre-sales technical Systems Engineers. I was somewhat skeptical because the role was in sales and I wanted to be a true techie. But I was quite lucky because the IBM Philadelphia Branch Manager spent time with me discussing career options and helped me secure a Systems Engineering job in the Process and Distribution Branch Office in NYC.

Aside from the fact that I was thrilled to be working in Manhattan, I loved the Systems Engineering role because I worked very closely with my customers – understanding their requirements and helping them plan and install their systems.

I’ve had the pleasure to work in a variety of roles over the years, but that foundation – working with clients on technical issues – has served me well in every job I’ve had since.

CloudNOW: What was the best piece of advice you received in your career?

Ms.States: One of the best pieces of advice I ever received is that you have to make bold moves to drive change, incremental moves will likely result in very little progress against your goal. Strong communication and effective stakeholder management are also critical success factors when you are driving change.

The other piece of advice I’ve gotten is to work in a global role. It’s been very rewarding to work with customers and colleagues all over the world and to understand their particular issues and challenges. When I look back over my career, this has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of it.

CloudNOW: Who was your role model?

Ms. States: My parents were my first role models. My mother was an amazing woman. As a teenager, she applied to and was accepted into Girls’ Latin School in Boston and later graduated from Boston University School of Nursing. She did this from a very disadvantaged position. My siblings and I were lucky to learn from her how to overcome any obstacles and to have the confidence to believe in our own abilities.

I’ve had countless mentors and sponsors throughout my IBM career. They’ve been very generous with their time and advice. It’s a great culture to work in and I am grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve been given.