IBM i Community To Get Closer Look At Watson
February 27, 2017 Dan Burger
The cogs in cognitive are turning. And there are indications that IBM is ready to go beyond the story of how it works to stories about it is working. The messengers remain somewhat tight lipped, but we can expect cognitive to be a celebrated technology at the COMMON conference in early May.
Watson, the face of IBM cognitive computing, is highly recognizable. Bluemix, IBM’s cloud platform for building, running, and managing apps and services, including Watson, is getting more attention. And the number of APIs that pull this together with integration points for all platforms, including IBM i, is growing.
The rebranding of Power Systems as Cognitive Systems, about a month ago, was a big clue that IBM was readying a cognitive onslaught. The preparations have been going on for years. The business partners have received the message. It’s all hands on deck. That includes the IBM i.
“The RPG community is engaged,” says Alison Butterill, product offering manager for IBM i. “As soon as we started looking at Bluemix and Watson, our development team started building things that can be customer consumable and showing what is possible. The IBM development team members are building some things to demo at COMMON.”
That’s as much information as Butterill would share on that topic.
“We need to enable our clients to understand the art of the possible,” says vice president of IBM Systems Freddy Alves Vaquero, the worldwide brand and sales management leader. “We are preparing to make a splash. We are assembling solutions that show how we integrate [enterprise business] with cognitive and Watson.”
The art of the possible is not about what’s right or what’s best. It’s about what you can actually get done. Christopher Vollmer, in a 2014 article in Forbes magazine, wrote:
“Too many companies are investing in digital strategies that fail to respond to their customers’ needs. I am often surprised at how some organizations take a page from an old playbook and expect it to work online. They’re trying to forge a new path with an old map, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Instead of using old methods as a way to keep pace with competitors, companies need to take a leader mentality and imagine the art of the possible. They should ask themselves: What can we do now that we couldn’t do before, thanks to changes in technology and user behavior? That’s how great organizations drive toward market leadership in a time of significant disruption.”
It starts with awareness. Watson is no lightweight in that category. But name recognition is just part of the story. Most people associate Watson with its game show conquest in a match of human intelligence vs artificial intelligence. The connection to business computing is not nearly as strong. The art of the possible is yet to be clearly understood by most folks outside of the cognitive computing kingdom. That includes a high percentage of IBM i-based businesses where executives are wondering how they can turn data into dollars. They tend to be more interested in what is being done than lots of talk about the possibilities.
Watson is a cloud-based data analytic service. It has the capability to analyze unstructured data, and to automatically generate recommendations based on customer searches. IBM i has the capability to exploit the Watson’s data analytics, which are delivered via Bluemix, IBM’s cloud-based platform as a service. Extending IBM i applications through data analytics is likely to be the most frequent reason IBM i shops explore the capabilities of Bluemix and Watson, Butterill says.
Bluemix runs on IBM’s SoftLayer infrastructure and supports programming languages that include Java, PHP, Node.js, Python, and Ruby on Rails, but not IBM i. All the aforementioned languages are supported on IBM i, however.
“There are many possibilities for connecting an IBM i with the analytical potential of Watson,” Butterill says. “The components are currently available. It’s a matter of learning about them.
The most talked about method of hooking up IBM i and Watson are APIs that create Web services interfaces. For features such as Watson’s natural language processing and voice analyzation, the interaction layer involves high-level Watson APIs. That will require additional underlying technology and some potent processing power, which IBM can provide with software and Power Systems.
But APIs and Web services can be kept at a relatively simple level as well. Last fall in an IT Jungle article titled RPG Talks To Watson, author Paul Tuohy explained that the integration requires no special software and there’s nothing to install or configure. IBM i 7.1, 7.2, or 7.3 is a requirement and the programmer needs embedded SQL skills.
Watson is one of the high-profile services are available through Bluemix. Storage is another. As you would expect, these are chargeable services. There are other services that cost nothing. IBM may be less enthusiastic about promoting those, but we’ll have to wait and see.
WebSphere interface is another method of reaching Watson from IBM i. It’s also done with an API call. Helping that process is a WebSphere 9 enhancement called IBM API Connect Essentials, which is useful for creating, discovering, and publishing APIs.
The integrated Web services server that is built into the IBM i operating system is another interface that’s expected to gain traction. It includes wizards to create Web services from RPG and COBOL code.
Yet another integration point are APIs used with DB2 WebQuery.
There’s some IBM i roadmap history that goes with IBM i and Bluemix. About three years ago, IBM i added support for REST-based services, a key element in the communication link.
Two years ago, IBM’s HATS – a tool for converting green-screen applications to graphical Web services – gained Bluemix support. The HATS toolkit is an Eclipse plugin that runs on Windows (supported by Bluemix). The HATS runtime is a set of Java classes.
“The early customers are not expecting the capabilities that apply to IBM i,” Alves Vaquero says. “We have to communicate to the market and demonstrate the capabilities, which will start a chain reaction related to in the data they have.
“One of our challenges is that we have some clients in very old environments. We just announced the Power S812 server last week [availability the end of March] and we hope to create conversations with customers who have accumulated value in their systems and now have the right proposition to move forward. The S812 is the right answer for them. Some clients didn’t need the entry level server we had. Now there is a true entry-level server.”
An upgrade to the 812, or any of the Power8 servers, brings an upgrade to IBM i 7.2 or 7.3, where support for RESTful interfaces begins. The APIs that IBM i and BlueMix integrations rely on RESTful interfaces.
“We won’t be rolling new enhancements into old releases of the operating system,” Butterill notes. “We will move forward with 7.2 and 7.3 and exploit Watson more easily by building in more wizards that create Web services that will only be available in the new releases. The new server will help customers move to an environment where they can start exploiting the power available to them.”