Greg Enright: Summing up a solid show

Some random conclusions gleaned from Gartner’s ITXpo Conference held last month in Orlando:

Intelligent networks are coming, but they’re not here yet: IBM used the conference as a stage to push its latest developments in the area of “smart” networking features, or “autonomic computing”, as Big Blue likes to call the concept. Working such features into its storage, security and identity management platforms, among others, IBM is looking to help users automate many of the management tasks that currently eat up a lot of an IT department’s time and money.

Make no mistake, features such as automatic network fixes and instant deletions of former employees’ access rights are extremely useful and will no doubt be adopted in droves. As one analyst told me, this is the way of the future. The key question, though, is when?

During an informal chat with three public-sector IT folks from San Francisco, I discovered that IBM may have quite a ways to go in getting decision-makers such as these up to speed with the concept of “autonomic computing.” When I asked them if they had heard of it, all I received were quizzical looks. When I expanded on that term and let them know it was IBM’s name for intelligent technology, the heads started nodding. They liked the concept, but were still skeptical of too many machines taking over too many integral parts of an organization. They related to me instances of problems with automated technology in former jobs, and indicated that they weren’t eager to make a big leap into it now.

The technology will catch on, and IBM will no doubt grab a large chunk of the market. It appears, though, that it has to get the marketing machine ramped up if its smart products are to be adopted in the short term.

Analyst conferences are great to attend: While vendors had plenty of podium time at the show’s many seminars, there was no shortage of objective insights to be heard from the stars of this show, the Gartner analysts. I don’t know whether other research firms’ get-togethers are up to this standard, but suffice it to say that you’ll hear a lot more concrete talk than you will at something like Comdex Vegas. All you have to do is compare keynote structures: at most conferences, vendors are allowed to drone on with their stock rah-rah spiels. In Orlando, industry heavyweights such as Michael Dell and Steve Ballmer were put in front of huge audiences and peppered with questions from Gartner analysts. The industry needs more such grillings.

Steve Ballmer is a hoot: One of the most enjoyable events at the conference was watching Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer go head-to-head with Gartner analyst Tom Austin. The former got so into a discussion about ethics in the computing industry that he was yelling so loud, it was doubtful whether he needed a microphone. Ballmer’s a presence, and he took over the stage. Love him or hate him, he can’t be accused of being boring.