Innovation

IBM's reactive platform makes it easier for Java developers to build AI apps

IBM has been struggling to invigorate its appeal to developers, but a year-old partnership with Lightbend is finally paying off.

IBM's 2018 Think conference in Las Vegas had lots of news, from the world's smallest computer (for blockchain, natch), to new offerings around artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), Swift programming tools and even deep learning as a service. Hidden in the avalanche was a new offering of interest to more than 10 million Java developers—many of them IBM customers.

IBM announced what it calls the Reactive Platform Development Accelerator, a new offering to help Java developers write reactive applications that are really a prerequisite for anyone building systems around AI and cognitive applications. Oh, and cloud native.

Growing young together

When I visited the IBM website to learn more, I noticed something remarkable under the hood: A lot of Lightbend technologies—Scala, Akka, Lagom, and Play. In part this is interesting because the technologies are interesting. Scala, for example, is the programming language for the JVM used by Apache Spark and Kafka. It's also one of the technologies developers love most, according to Stack Overflow survey data.

But it's also interesting to a startup guy like me. It's simply not that common for a big company like IBM to truly partner with a startup, yet IBM and Lightbend are close. IBM last year led a $15 million funding round in Lightbend. As part of the investment, the two companies agreed to partner on strategic development on what became the IBM Reactive Platform.

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The first fruits of that partnership were a production offering from IBM to its installed Websphere base to help developers containerize their Java workloads and run them on IBM Cloud Private (ICP). It was a very important customer message that IBM wanted to help its installed Java customer base move to cloud native. This latest news is an offering aimed specifically at developers before they push an app into production.

Thinking smart about developers

What's novel in this service is the expertise included in a subscription for developers. IBM understands that developers want experts. Now they can connect directly with Scala, Akka, Play, and Lagom subject matter experts about the best way to design and build their apps using this reactive software stack.

"Customers like that they can purchase through IBM and engage with IBM support but know that we're backing up IBM as the final experts," said Mark Brewer, CEO of Lightbend. "That's what developers want to know. They get an answer from someone with intimate knowledge of the software, and also advice on how best to use the software."

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Brewer pointed out that customers who can't afford downtime in a service or application also can't afford to just rely on the infrastructure of their cloud provider to handle failure. He pointed to the infamous S3 failure at AWS last year that cascaded across services from a wide range of companies like GitHub and Zillow that relied on Amazon's storage. Reactive isn't just about hardware failure, it's about system failure. Apps need to be designed, written, and deployed assuming failure but in a way that doesn't interrupt services to a customer.

"When your business depends on applications that run in environments not completely under your control, you have to design your systems to be reactive top to bottom," Brewer said. "You have to have a system that embraces cloud native and failure. That's the reality of the world we live in. It's impossible to build a 5 x 9s uptime service without it being reactive."

And yet it would be very possible for IBM to miss this point. By working with Lightbend, it seems that IBM has recognized that it needs an infusion of savvy developer expertise, coupled with winning developer-oriented technology. In Lightbend it gets both.

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Image: iStockphoto/FS-Stock

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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