Forget Watson, the Red Hat acquisition may be the thing that saves IBM

With its latest $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat, IBM may have found something more elementary than “Watson” to save its flagging business.

Though the acquisition of Red Hat  is by no means a guaranteed victory for the Armonk, N.Y.-based computing company that has had more downs than ups over the five years, it seems to be a better bet for “Big Blue” than an artificial intelligence program that was always more hype than reality.

Indeed, commentators are already noting that this may be a case where IBM finally hangs up the Watson hat and returns to the enterprise software and services business that has always been its core competency (albeit one that has been weighted far more heavily on consulting services — to the detriment of the company’s business).

Watson, the business division focused on artificial intelligence whose public claims were always more marketing than actually market-driven, has not performed as well as IBM had hoped and investors were losing their patience.

Critics — including analysts at the investment bank Jefferies (as early as one year ago) — were skeptical of Watson’s ability to deliver IBM from its business woes.

As we wrote at the time:

Jefferies pulls from an audit of a partnership between IBM Watson and MD Anderson as a case study for IBM’s broader problems scaling Watson. MD Anderson cut its ties with IBM after wasting $60 million on a Watson project that was ultimately deemed, “not ready for human investigational or clinical use.”

The MD Anderson nightmare doesn’t stand on its own. I regularly hear from startup founders in the AI space that their own financial services and biotech clients have had similar experiences working with IBM.

The narrative isn’t the product of any single malfunction, but rather the result of overhyped marketing, deficiencies in operating with deep learning and GPUs and intensive data preparation demands.

That’s not the only trouble IBM has had with Watson’s healthcare results. Earlier this year, the online medical journal Stat reported that Watson was giving clinicians recommendations for cancer treatments that were “unsafe and incorrect” — based on the training data it had received from the company’s own engineers and doctors at Sloan-Kettering who were working with the technology.

All of these woes were reflected in the company’s latest earnings call where it reported falling revenues primarily from the Cognitive Solutions business, which includes Watson’s artificial intelligence and supercomputing services. Though IBM chief financial officer pointed to “mid-to-high” single digit growth from Watson’s health business in the quarter, transaction processing software business fell by 8% and the company’s suite of hosted software services is basically an afterthought for business gravitating to Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon for cloud services.

To be sure, Watson is only one of the segments that IBM had been hoping to tap for its future growth; and while it was a huge investment area for the company, the company always had its eyes partly fixed on the cloud computing environment as it looked for areas of growth.

It’s this area of cloud computing where IBM hopes that Red Hat can help it gain ground.

“The acquisition of Red Hat is a game-changer. It changes everything about the cloud market,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, in a statement announcing the acquisition. “IBM will become the world’s number-one hybrid cloud provider, offering companies the only open cloud solution that will unlock the full value of the cloud for their businesses.”

The acquisition also puts an incredible amount of marketing power behind Red Hat’s various open source services business — giving all of those IBM project managers and consultants new projects to pitch and maybe juicing open source software adoption a bit more aggressively in the enterprise.

As Red Hat chief executive Jim Whitehurst told TheStreet in September, “The big secular driver of Linux is that big data workloads run on Linux. AI workloads run on Linux. DevOps and those platforms, almost exclusively Linux,” he said. “So much of the net new workloads that are being built have an affinity for Linux.”

IBM to buy Red Hat for $34B in cash and debt, taking a bigger leap into hybrid cloud

After rumors flew around this weekend, IBM today confirmed that it would acquire open source, cloud software business Red Hat for $190 per share in cash, working out to a total value of $34 billion. IBM said the deal has already been approved by the boards of directors of both IBM and Red Hat but is still subject to Red Hat shareholder and regulatory approvals. If all goes as planned, the acquisition is expected to close in the latter half of 2019.

The deal is all about IBM, which has long continued to rely on its legacy server business, taking a bigger bet on the cloud, and very specifically cloud services that blend on-premises and cloud-based architectures — something that the two companies have already been working on together since May of this year (which now might be looked at as a test drive). Red Hat will be a distinct unit within IBM’s Hybrid Cloud team — which is already a $19 billion business for IBM, the company said — and it will continue to focus on open-source software. 

“The acquisition of Red Hat is a game-changer. It changes everything about the cloud market,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, in a statement. “IBM will become the world’s number-one hybrid cloud provider, offering companies the only open cloud solution that will unlock the full value of the cloud for their businesses.”

The combined businesses will be able to offer software in services spanning Linux, containers, Kubernetes, multi-cloud management, and cloud management and automation, IBM said. IBM also added that together the companies will continue to build partnerships with multiple cloud providers, including AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, Google Cloud, Alibaba and others, alongside the IBM Cloud.

As Josh Constine notes here, it’s one of the biggest-ever tech acquisitions, and arguably the biggest that is dedicated primarily to software. (Dell acquired EMC for $67 billion, to pick up software but also a substantial hardware and storage business.)

While companies like Amazon have gone all-in on cloud, in many cases, a lot of enterprises are making the move gradually — IBM cites stats that estimate that some 80 percent of business workloads “have yet to move to the cloud, held back by the proprietary nature of today’s cloud market.” Buying Red Hat will help IBM better tap into an opportunity to address that.

“Most companies today are only 20 percent along their cloud journey, renting compute power to cut costs,” she continued. “The next 80 percent is about unlocking real business value and driving growth. This is the next chapter of the cloud. It requires shifting business applications to hybrid cloud, extracting more data and optimizing every part of the business, from supply chains to sales.”

On top of that, it will give IBM a much stronger footing in open source software, the core of what Red Hat builds and deploys today.

“Open source is the default choice for modern IT solutions, and I’m incredibly proud of the role Red Hat has played in making that a reality in the enterprise,” said Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO, Red Hat, in a statement. “Joining forces with IBM will provide us with a greater level of scale, resources and capabilities to accelerate the impact of open source as the basis for digital transformation and bring Red Hat to an even wider audience –  all while preserving our unique culture and unwavering commitment to open source innovation.”

While IBM competes against the likes of Amazon, the companies will see to remain partners with them with this acquisition. “IBM is committed to being an authentic multi-cloud provider, and we will prioritize the use of Red Hat technology across multiple clouds” said Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President, IBM Hybrid Cloud, in a statement. “In doing so, IBM will support open source technology wherever it runs, allowing it to scale significantly within commercial settings around the world.”

IBM said that Red Hat will add to its revenue growth, gross margin and free cash flow within 12 months of closing.

Translating startup-speak for the corporate buyer

Startups salivate at the prospect of entering the enterprise — and for good reason. The enterprise is rife with legacy systems and circuitous processes that frustrate employees and hinder results — and the startup has just the perfect product to fix the problem.

Too often though, the pitch to the enterprise falls flat or a promising pilot gets sidelined. Sometimes there’s a clear obstacle, like a mismatch between product and problem to be solved, an inability to scale or the loss of an internal sponsor. But more often than one would expect, the startup’s value is simply getting lost in translation.

Even the most forward-looking enterprise leaders are operating in an environment that I like to call “GAAP-based digital strategy.” The budgeting process supports only certain kinds of purchases, like renewable software licensing fees and support contracts with fixed costs. New models, like variable costs for open-source development, require workarounds and explanation in the budget process and cause even the most eager internal champion to lose time and energy.

So what’s a startup to do? The more you can help your internal sponsor translate the cost model to adhere to the established norm, the more traction they are likely to get from the hydra of procurement and finance. Once the project has momentum, your champion can work to change the budgeting process — but that’s a tall order before your pilot is launched and showing results.

The concept of GAAP-based digital strategy extends well beyond accounting practices. Consider internal reporting: Large organizations spend an inordinate amount of time reporting up, across and down in an effort to improve transparency and inspire shared ownership of outcomes. What are the KPIs for the department you are serving? How easily will your results translate into their storytelling? Spend some time up front with your client to ensure your results align with (and show up in!) the existing framework for reporting.

Corporations are aware of how hard it is to navigate these control systems, and so they are increasingly creating “innovation departments” with dedicated funding for one-off experiments using new technology. This is often the start of the relationship between a startup and a new client.

For startups, this can be a beneficial approach, as it offers the opportunity to deliver value before wrangling with cumbersome procurement or IT requirements. But too often these divisions lurch from pilot to pilot, and struggle to find line-of-business champions willing to absorb startup technology into their operations. The biggest challenge here is that there’s often no enterprise template for the hand-off from the innovation setting — where experiments can operate in a “clean room” apart from procedures and regulations — to ongoing operations.

Here’s how one startup providing augmented reality headsets and software to a complex pharma manufacturing environment crossed over. Their pilot showed clear results: Testing with four-five headsets, their AR software measurably helped workers on the floor by augmenting the workflow with voice recording and hands-free capabilities.

The startup team then came on-site, and they partnered with the workers testing the solution to document the improvements and discuss how to ensure the process complied with regulations. This direct interaction fed into their results reporting to make the case for the 30-40 headsets needed on the shop floor. Rather than wait for middle management, the startup developed a grassroots-fortified case for moving into operations.

Similarly, a startup piloting an analytics product in a CPG enterprise was immediately pigeonholed into the IT department’s analytics budget. Surrounded by a range of solutions from business intelligence dashboards to marketing technology tools, their pilot was getting lost.

By closely analyzing results, the startup saw promising early findings in the trade promotions area. They worked through their contacts to reach the executive in charge of trade promotions, who took the pilot under her wing — and into her budget. They avoided being locked into a GAAP-based bucket (analytics), and were connected with an executive to unlock a whole different conversation.

In addition to finding your internal champion and changing the GAAP conversation, spend time understanding the larger enterprise backdrop: the initiatives and themes that are driving this quarter’s shareholder value. Help your client position the solution not only in the context of the specific problem to solve, but the overall enterprise goals.

The annual report is your friend here. The focus may be digital transformation or global collaboration or risk management, and aligning to this priority may enable your client to get buy-in internally. Make sure you are fluent in the visible, budgeted, CEO-led, cross departmental initiatives — and how your solution plays a role here.

Take heart: This translation won’t always be a one-way street. The deeper your engagement, the more your enterprise clients will benefit from your startup’s perspective, and change technology, process and language to reflect that understanding. Ideally, GAAP-based digital strategy recedes as long-established protocols reduce structural lag with how business is conducted today. In the meantime, consider the art of translation as important as pitching the outcome.