Leading into BbWorld16, Blackboard's annual users conference in the air conditioned bunker of The Venetian in Las Vegas, the company announced that they were partnering with IBM.
Blackboard Inc. and IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced a collaborative agreement for IBM to manage Blackboard’s datacenters and cloud infrastructure. The two companies will also work together to develop innovative educational solutions, taking advantage of IBM Watson’s cognitive computing technology and Blackboard’s broad capabilities suite.
Under the agreement, IBM will manage much of Blackboard’s technology infrastructure, including the company’s 28 global data centers and its existing public cloud footprint. IBM will also provide support for Blackboard’s expanding use of the public cloud. Blackboard will leverage IBM’s expertise and software to offer customers some of the most flexible, reliable, security-rich and resilient environments available.
What the initial press release did not capture, and what has become quite apparent at BbWorld16, is that this is really a three-way partnership between Blackboard, IBM, and Amazon (for Amazon Web Services, or AWS). Peter George, Blackboard's SVP of Products, noted this critical distinction in his blog post "Partnering with AWS and IBM for cloud services and infrastructure management".
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Since the mid 2000s, Blackboard has grown its Managed Hosting operations, providing the ability for Learn LMS customers to have Blackboard run their instance in the company's data centers. Yet as of last year, Blackboard also introduced Learn SaaS (software as a service), which is the LMS running in the public cloud. The original vision for Learn SaaS was based on using both OpenStack's open source cloud platform as well as AWS, but as of last year Blackboard transitioned this option to run only on AWS.
What Does This Mean In Practical Sense?
There are quite a few Learn Managed Hosting customers, so what does this somewhat confusing three-way partnership mean in reality? At a session at BbWorld today, I asked for more details from Steve Kann, Blackboard's VP of Product Development and Cloud Services. There is a distinction between Learn and all the other Blackboard applications.
- Over the next four months, IBM will take over the existing Blackboard data centers and manage the existing technology deployments.
- IBM will then start to deploy many of their infrastructure management processes and automation techniques.
- Blackboard staff will continue to manage the applications while IBM manages the infrastructure. The same people from Blackboard will answer the phones, run the apps, etc while IBM does their work behind the scenes.
- Learn SaaS is already on AWS.
- In other words, for Learn this announcement is really about two separate partnerships with IBM running Managed Hosting and AWS running cloud / SaaS. The term of the initial Blackboard / IBM agreement is for five years.
For Other Applications:
- IBM will take an active role in re-engineering the applications to move to AWS. For example, Collaborate currently runs as one instance in Blackboard's Virginia data center. IBM will help change the architecture to move this out of what can be considered a private cloud into the AWS public cloud.
- In other words, for other applications this announcement is really about a three-way partnership.
Why Make The Move?
During the BbWorld session, Steve Kann emphasized the nature of data center infrastructure management as very important but not unique. Blackboard is taking a hard look at what they do that is differentiated from other companies, and data center operations is not it. As stated in the session today, Blackboard should "stop doing the undifferentiated work."
Beyond Blackboard getting out of this type of operations, there is also the question of the benefits of working with IBM and Amazon. In his blog, Peter calls out:
By focusing our future development on the AWS platform, we will be able to leverage not only AWS’s operational strengths and nearly infinite scale, but also the increasingly formidable breadth of capabilities it provides both natively and via the rapidly growing ecosystem of innovations coming from its partners.
We chose IBM to take on the role of infrastructure management because it brings world-class people, processes, and technology to the partnership. IBM brings deep experience and unique capabilities to bear. One exciting technology that we’ll be leveraging is IBM’s predictive analytics, that foresee potential component failures and give us the opportunity to deal with them in advance, avoiding disruptions. Under the agreement, IBM will provide infrastructure management and operations for all current Blackboard datacenters as we move to the AWS Cloud. Blackboard staff will continue to operate our applications, provide support for our customers, and act as the interface between the customer and the infrastructure teams – just as they do today.
At the BbWorld session, IBM touted their ability to provide "Dynamic Automation" with the use of "virtual engineers" to manage changes in computing demand and to adjust data center resources quickly. The focus is on shortening the Mean Time to Respond and Mean Time to Resolve metrics.
I asked Steve after the session when customers should notice any changes or improvements in the data center operations, and his estimate was 3 - 6 months.
Throughout the conference, Blackboard has emphasized their new meme: 1 Learn, 2 Experiences (Original and Ultra), 3 Deployments (Self hosted, managed hosted, SaaS). I'll cover the Learn Ultra angle in tomorrow's post, but for "3 Deployments" the intent is to tell Learn customers that they can keep Self Hosting or Managed Hosting "indefinitely", according to Steve Kann during the session today. Yet he also said there are "compelling" reasons that customers should consider Cloud / SaaS options.
When I asked Steve about this potentially contradictory view, his response was that yes, there are reasons to go the public cloud and Blackboard sees that as the future. But they are not going to force customers to move. They are offering carrots but not sticks.
But now that it's cooled off to 104 degrees, it's time to head to a dinner outside the bunker. More tomorrow on other Blackboard news.
Update: Clarified that Bb's original visions for cloud included both OpenStack and AWS.