IBM is bringing artificial intelligence and blockchain technology to bear on supply-chain management — with a twist.
What distinguishes this latest effort from previous software industry offerings, IBM says, is the manner in which it’s open to developers and third-party applications. The strategy reflects the reality that it takes much more than a single vendor — even one on the scale of IBM — to create and control all the elements of a complex global supply chain.
The IBM Sterling Supply Chain Suite draws on the vendor’s own highly touted Watson AI technology, as well as IBM Blockchain and the internet of things (IoT). The idea, says the vendor, is to enable “self-correcting” supply chains that learn from experience.
The open-platform approach allows for the integration of data and networks from users, their suppliers and their customers with the Sterling Supply Chain suite. It comes on the heels of IBM’s $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat, a provider of open-source software and services, last July.
The new product serves as an admission that “we’re not the only player in the supply chain,” says Marshall Lamb, chief technology officer with IBM Sterling. “There are other platforms, bespoke and commercial, many of them competitors to us. To create an end-to-end supply chain, you have to work together. And the only way to do that is to have an open platform.”
IBM sees itself as “first advocate” within an extended ecosystem of collaborators and public interfaces. Customers can draw on the provider’s own product set as well as build their own apps and services, or obtain them from third parties.
In tandem with the new platform, IBM is offering Cloud Paks, which are groupings of applications designed to execute particular functions, such as data management and app development. Users decide what they want to run, and whether they prefer to build their own solutions.
“We are encouraging our partners, integrators and customers to build their own AI functions using our data within the Sterling platform,” says Jeanette Barlow, vice president of offering management with IBM Sterling. The vendor sees its own offering as providing the “connective tissue to bind systems together.”
IBM doesn’t act as the gatekeeper to vet third-party apps. Instead, it provides public application programming interfaces (APIs), which are protected and gated against “misuse and abuse,” Barlow says. “We don’t feel it’s necessary to certify what’s being developed against those APIs.”
Lamb sees a “huge opportunity” for integrators and customers to bridge functional gaps within end-to-end supply chains. While IBM Sterling helps to build “intelligent” self-correcting capability, “we can’t do the self-correcting aspect by ourselves.”
“No two supply chains are the same,” Lamb adds. “They are typically highly manual, involving complex business processes and varying from customer to customer.” IBM sees its role as that of providing “building blocks” and intelligence functions that raise awareness of any problems that need to be corrected.
IBM’s big selling point is speed of innovation. Users don’t have to build up the fundamentals of a platform for understanding and managing the supply chain, says Barlow. Instead, they can plug into a network of some 800,000 preconfigured endpoints.
“Every company is unique,” Barlow says. “You want to be able to wrap capability around that, but you don’t want to recreate the wheel.”
As for blockchain, the technology is still in its early days, Barlow acknowledged. “We’re not looking to rip and replace existing codified transaction flows.” The vendor sees blockchain in its infancy as a means of augmenting multi-party visibility, rather than replacing existing transactions conducted via electronic data interchange (EDI).
Blockchain is of value in reconciling discrepancies in data and providing an immutable ledger that offers a neutral version of “the truth,” says Barlow.
Lamb acknowledges that blockchain as a tool for managing supply-chain data is still young, existing as “a lot of [version] 1.0s.” By owning the blockchain that runs within the IBM Sterling suite, the vendor hopes to lower the bar to entry by prospective adopters.
A number of challenges remain to be addressed in integrating and running all of the applications that make up a global supply chain. The question of who owns the data and where it resides is a particular concern, says Lamb. In the short term, he adds, partners and customers operating via an open platform “are going to have to face these really tricky problems.”