IBM’s SmartCloud for Education: compelling parts, a disjointed whole

IBM recognizes that there is a role for specific solutions that target market segments facing unusual regulatory, legislative or other restrictions. Last year the company’s SmartCloud addressed the needs of health care, and in a press release issued this month, it was education’s turn. The education market certainly has needs, particularly around data privacy in the K–12 sector, but IBM’s current offering fails to deliver the compelling package that it succeeded in supplying for the health care market.

IBM’s SmartCloud recognizes the sensitive nature of patient data and the legacy infrastructures deployed by health care providers. It offers secure cloud-based solutions to a range of real problems, such as the timely aggregation of authoritative patient data from different systems. And after spending some time last week talking with Mike King, IBM’s vice president for its Global Education Industry, it’s clear the company intends to deliver similarly coherent cloud solutions for the education market.

Unfortunately, IBM’s SmartCloud for Education, released earlier this month, fails to deliver on that promise: The announcements rolled up in this month’s press release remain individually useful, but overall they are disjointed and collectively unconvincing. As is, they do not provide an overarching strategy toward education and the cloud.

The release covers three main announcements:

  • a collaboration between IBM and the University of Rhode Island “to use cloud-based analytics and social networking tools to help researchers more easily find funding opportunities; identify collaborators around the world; and locate the latest published research findings in their fields.” This project may end up being a useful tool for researchers, especially if it can both aggregate sufficient volumes of data and move beyond the initial subject areas.
  • a SaaS offering that gathers information from different university systems to support decision making by administrators. According to the release, this system is already improving student retention by helping support staff identify students who are at risk of dropping out. Student retention is a big concern; anything that systems like this can do to help will no doubt be welcomed.
  • an open-source API that builds on several years of collaboration between IBM and North Carolina State University on the Virtual Computing Lab (VCL). The release of this API makes it easier for institutions to connect their local VCL installations to computing resources running in IBM’s cloud data centers, and to gain technical support for their work from IBM. Of the three announcements, this one most obviously pertains to the cloud because it simplifies the deployment of tools on campus and accessing additional compute resources elsewhere in the cloud as required.

Each of these announcements will deliver value to a subset of educational institutions around the world. However, other than the fact that all three address part of the education sector, there is little to link them. In other words, they’re worthy products, but they’re not a strategy for a market segment. Also, they are mainly aimed at higher education. King recognizes the potential locked up in the K–12 market; he notes that solutions will be delivered there, but not yet.

IBM’s stated intention to coherently address the needs of whole markets is bold, compelling and broadly correct. As a proposition, it enables the company to distinguish itself from much of the competition, and to deliver a compelling story to industries that might be unable to adopt mainstream commodity cloud solutions.

Each of the three products announced may go on to be successful — and profitable — for IBM. But until the company begins to tell a coherent and encompassing story about education in the cloud — or to deliver products that address the weaknesses of commodity cloud offerings in this domain — it has done nothing to convincingly persuade educators that SmartCloud offers a vision that they need to embrace.

Question of the week

What specific educational requirements should an initiative like IBM’s SmartCloud focus on?