IBM looks to the future with Connections Pink

Faced with a constantly shifting and increasingly competitive collaboration technology market, IBM is completely overhauling its established IBM Connections technology to make it more flexible, scalable, and ready for the next generation of customer needs.

A much-needed revamp for IBM Connections

Last week we heard IBM’s plans for the future of IBM Connections, its enterprise collaboration and social networking platform. The product has been an important part of the company’s portfolio since its launch in 2007. It became the fastest-growing product in IBM’s history, achieving a million deployed seats in just over a year. Today, IBM has tens of millions of users of Connections across tens of thousands of businesses.

However, over the last few years, the cracks have been starting to show; Connections was still based on the same core technology stack it was created on 10 years ago (including IBM Websphere, Java, DB2), making keeping up with the new and more agile competition more challenging. Despite upgrades, the UI has been starting to feel dated and a little clunky. Something needed to change, and change in a big way. And – thankfully – it really has.

Introducing IBM Connections “Pink”

At its IBM Connect event in San Francisco a few weeks back, IBM introduced its vision and strategy for Connections – and the shift that it hopes will help the product not just stay relevant in the enterprise collaboration technology marketplace, but reinvigorate the momentum that Connections had in its first few years, taking an unusually innovative role for a large software company.

What’s interesting, first of all, is that Connections Pink is not the next version of IBM Connections per se. You’ll never see Pink hit the market as a “big bang” product version in the way that has historically been the case for on-premise versions of the product, such as IBM Connections 6.0, which is set to become generally available next week. And that’s not because IBM is ending its support for organisations that want to deploy Connections in an on-premise scenario. The company will continue to support customers deploying on the IBM cloud, on a partner cloud, or on-premise in their own, private cloud, or in a mixture of these, through a hybrid deployment.

A new containerised architecture

Instead, Connections Pink will be introduced gradually, component-by-component, alongside Connections 6.0 deployments wherever they may be hosted. The reason for this is that IBM is fundamentally redesigning the way Connections is built. It’s replacing the current approach with a containerised architecture, and a single, unified codebase that will span all deployment options. The company says that ultimately, Connections’ entire codebase will be replaced with a more modular, flexible technology stack exposing its capabilities via APIs, allowing for greater flexibility around integration – both in terms of integrating third-party technologies into Connections, and exposing Connections components within other applications.

The first release of Connections Pink will be shipped with Connections 6.0 in April 2017; the new Orient Me capability is the first delivered on the new Pink architecture, and will be deployed via IBM Spectrum Conductor for Containers, which is providing the container platform and is also being bundled with Connections 6.0. IBM promises that further features will ship on a regular basis throughout 2017, and these will be pushed to customers automatically via Conductor for Containers.

Time to embrace IBM’s release schedule

One of the most important things to note about the Pink strategy is that IBM is now drawing a line in the sand in terms of ensuring customers keep up with the release schedule; customers will have the choice of either receiving updates when they are released, or remaining one quarter behind. IBM is no longer going to support customers selectively adopting newly released features, whether or not they go down the IBM cloud route. This new strategy kicks off with the Connections 6.0 release, so once you sign up to that, you commit to staying with IBM’s release cycle going forward.

However, it’s also going to be much easier to deploy these new capabilities, and IBM asserts that there will be no migration process for customers as the various components of Connections 6.0 are superseded by Connections Pink components. For example, as and when the new Pink replacement for Connections profiles is released, this will automatically assimilate data from both on-prem and cloud versions of Connections, with no effort required by admins. If this works as IBM says it will work, this will be fantastic achievement, and something that customers will love.

Next-gen hybrid

Another major advantage of the new Pink strategy and architecture is that IBM plans to give customers much more flexibility in terms of where they host their data and Connections workloads. In what it describes as “next-gen hybrid”, customers will be able to keep different types of data in different places, allowing them to maximise the benefits of a cloud platform, while meeting compliance regulations at the same time. By allowing customers to also specify where workloads operate from, IBM aims to support organisations with challenges around internet performance as well.

New collaboration innovations?

One thing we don’t yet have much visibility of is what IBM is planning in terms of updating the user experience itself. The company pointed to a few examples – Orient Me, of course; as well as a revamped communities home page that will look more like a web page, and a new onboarding experience for new users to the platform. These are all great, but in themselves don’t do a lot to differentiate IBM Connections in a new way. I’m hopeful that IBM can do some interesting things here – the rebuild offers the perfect opportunity to overhaul the way the different pieces of Connections work together, and provides much greater opportunities to take advantage of partner technologies where those features aren’t (yet) present in Connections. Cognitive capabilities are bound to play a major role in the new experience, but there’s not much clarity yet on where this might go beyond the Orient Me experience, or the summarisations that we’ve seen already via Watson Workspace. It’s important to leverage these of course, but Connections really needs something extra to create that wow factor.

The challenge for IBM is that it’s now juggling a lot of priorities in the collaboration division, and this rebuild – although much-needed – involves a lot of under-the-covers development, as well as driving expectations for updating the end-user-visible aspects of the product. The company is conscious that it mustn’t lose momentum on this in the same way it did with its Project Vulcan initiative some years back, and its new agile development approach and regular release strategy should help with that. The key will be also maintaining the market visibility of this momentum and IBM’s renewed vigour in this space. Expectations – both inside IBM and outside – are high.

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