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IBM’s Coronavirus Strategy Is A Lesson In Cloud-Native Development

Big Blue’s Cloud CTO tells CRN that having rearchitected its portfolio with Kubernetes has enabled the flexibility IBM now needs to seamlessly scale in-demand cloud services like video streaming, file sharing and supply chain management. Once the pandemic passes, enterprise customers can take those lessons to heart, and leverage Red Hat OpenShift to do the same.

IBM, like all major cloud providers, is confronting surging demand amid the coronavirus crisis as many customers are scaling services hosted on its infrastructure while others are leaning more heavily on its extensive application portfolio.

But Big Blue is confident its infrastructure is well-suited to meet the unprecedented challenge of the moment, partly because its cloud-based applications—many of the most critical, like video streaming and file transfer, are now offered for free—have been transformed in recent years using Kubernetes and cloud-native architectures, Jason McGee, IBM CTO for Cloud Platform, told CRN.

“We have the advantage because a lot of our services, they’re containerized, built in a cloud-native way,” McGee explained. “So we can move workloads around, can easily move workloads to where the capacity exists.”

[Related: ‘When All Else Fails, Sing’: IBM Exec Cheers Up Co-workers With Blues Parody]

To be sure, IBM, like all large public clouds, maintains reserve infrastructure capacity to handle spikes in consumption, and it’s adding physical resources to data centers to ensure they unfailingly meet customer demand during the pandemic.

But enabling native and customer applications to scale fast certainly isn’t only about bulking up the backend with more hardware—especially not across every region at the same time.

“Some of it is just a software problem,” McGee said.

The way IBM has tackled that problem—by having executed a cloud-native transformation across its application portfolio—can serve as a useful lesson to customers about efficient infrastructure utilization after the pandemic passes, he said.

“We are an interesting case study in using cloud-native,” McGee said.

As the spread of coronavirus threatens to undermine business processes, and it forces a massive and unplanned shift to mobile work, IBM feels a unique duty as a technology provider with so many longstanding relationships running mission-critical systems for some of the world’s largest banks, telecoms and health care providers, McGee said.

Since the start of the outbreak, IBM has been working closely with those customers to enable them to transition employees to working from home while keeping their main business processes and critical infrastructure running smoothly.

“We’re helping people ensure they’re protecting their data, protecting their employees, and that their IT systems are secure in a world where many of us are sitting in our houses instead of our offices,” McGee said.

To that end, IBM has offered free access for 90 days to cloud solutions useful to meeting those objectives— from Aspera for customers ramping file sharing, to Enterprise Video Streaming for those looking to stream events, to Sterling for those managing supply chain disruptions, especially for medical necessities like COVID-19 testing kits.

Many IBM Security solutions are also being offered at no-charge, as cyber-criminals can try to exploit an upsurge in remote connections to business systems.

But free access to the most in-demand applications can further stress back-end systems.

That’s not a problem, however, because so much of IBMs technical strategy is based on containers, Kubernetes and Red Hat OpenShift—technologies that deliver higher-density utilization of an infrastructure environment.

“We can do more with the resources we have because containerized workloads allow us to use a given host more easily, stack it with more workloads more easily,” McGee said. It “relieves some of the pressure on physical infrastructure … abstracting away from physical servers and data centers.”

Another benefit of containerization is far-greater portability for shuttling around workloads, he said.

“If I need to flip from one server to another, one zone to another, I can do that without having to change anything about the workload. And that gives us more flexibility,” McGee said.

It’s useful for enterprise customers to understand how IBM is employing cloud-native software methods—and know that the technology is available to them when developing or transforming custom workloads.

Red Hat products are especially essential ingredients for customers that want to emulate Big Blue’s application development methodology, especially the OpenShift Kubernetes management platform.

But there’s also a dimension of know-how that goes beyond adopting any particular technology, McGee said.

For that reason, well before the current crisis began, IBM had been taking those cloud-native lessons to its IBM Garage and Expert Labs—training sessions that share industry expertise with enterprise developers looking to master those same skills.

The pandemic is now reinforcing those lessons for many enterprises—and the overall value of cloud in enabling them to scale their critical infrastructure systems. But while the current crisis highlights the advantages of cloud-native development, the first priority of enterprises right now should not be big app modernization initiatives, McGee emphasized.

In the short term, IBM is working with customers to sustain the applications, legacy or cloud-native, that matter to them most.

“But coming out of this, there are lessons to be learned, and what will be interesting to see is how the consumption of cloud, and digital transformation, accelerates,” McGee said.

One legacy of the crisis will likely be greater appreciation among business leaders for how cloud enables them to maintain operations in perilous times. IBM clients understand that “cloud services and cloud infrastructure have enabled [them] to make a pretty dramatic transition to work-from-home relatively seamlessly,” McGee said.

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