Interview: IBM’s Perna Predicts Changes in What “Data” Means

Habitat for Humanity has a list of skills for potential volunteers to check off: plumbing, electrical wiring, Sheetrocking, roofing, skilled painting, semi-skilled painting, not-so-great painting, etc.

Janet Perna never built a house.

She did build a database empire at one of the world’s largest software companies. Over the past 31 years, she’s been one of the movers behind the industry evolution from hierarchical databases to relational databases to a whole industry built around relational database technology.

She’s IBM’s general manager of data management solutions for the IBM Software Group, and you could say she was the overseer of the architecture for the DB2 database.

But she can’t build a house.

It matters because Perna’s retiring, and when you’re 57 and you’re retiring after a very long and very successful career in technology, you start to think about what’s real. And yes, of course databases are real and important and life-changing, and technology is real and important and life-changing.


The best skills she can check off on Habitat for Humanity’s list are unskilled painting, and maybe cooking or recruiting. So Perna’s going to a Red Cross orientation meeting next week. She wants to go to New Orleans to help out. She’s ready to turn away from autonomic database configuration. She’s ready to turn her attention to walls that are coated with human waste and to lives that are in shards.

Before she goes, Perna recently took time to speak with Ziff Davis Internet News Editor Lisa Vaas to look over her legacy and to say goodbye—and thank you—to the database world she helped to create.

So there’s this buzz about you turning up next at Sun Microsystems Inc. or maybe even Oracle Corp. or a startup. Hogwash?

If I wanted to keep working at this pace, I’d stay right where I am. I already have the best job there is. But I do want to spend more time in particular with my parents. My dad’s turning 94. My mom is 87. While they’re still relatively healthy, it made me realize I want to spend more time with them, and they can use some help, so I’m going to do that.

Of course. And I’ve also heard you’re set to do some serious volunteer work.

I’ve volunteered with the Red Cross to see if they’ll take me to go down and work on the hurricane [cleanup].

It’s hard to admit it when you’ve worked in technology and you’ve created so much and it’s sustained you for so long, but I bet that sort of thing does feel more real at this stage of your life, doesn’t it?

It’s the return part of life. The first part of your life you learn, then you earn, then you return.

Let’s talk about your legacy. And let’s talk about where you think the future of database technology is heading: where it will be in the coming years, after you’re gone.

I’ve been going through my files, so I had my own journey through memory lane.

IBM has been in the database business for close to 40 years. I’ve been at IBM for 31. We’ve moved from hierarchical databases to relational databases to a whole industry built around relational database technology.

When you think of all the companies that were there, in the days of the big database wars, with Informix and Sybase and [when] even Borland had a relational database, before Microsoft… We had Ingres. … And now what’s happened over the last five to six years is a charge IBM’s been leading around an information infrastructure. With a set of data services and content management services and information integration services, and with IBM having made a number of acquisitions, Ascential being the largest.

Click here to read about IBM’s expanding SOA management practice.

And then there’ve been things like data models for banking, insurance, retail, and the whole area of master data management and acquisitions [such as] DWL.

So when we look at information in the future, information will be presented as services, as part of SOAs [service-oriented architectures].

We’re certainly hearing a lot about SOAs and middleware, between the three big vendors in that area: IBM, Oracle and SAP. But that’s not near future; this stuff will take a very long time to construct.

I think it will be evolutionary, I agree with that. It will happen bit by bit over a number of years. But will it be any more painful than anything else we’ve been through in the last 10 years? I don’t think so.

But implementing large monolithic applications, some could say it was pretty painful, but in reality they were an improvement over a lot of homegrown work that was there.

So would you say we’re at the verge of another evolutionary leap?

There are different points in time to view modernization projects. In 2000, remediation drove modernization of systems and installation of packaged applications like ERP and CRM. Companies said, ‘I’ll replace what I built 20 years ago with these packages and standardize on them.’

Was that painful? Yes, but they had to do year 2000 remediation anyway, and they modernized along the way.

We’ll transition again to get to SOAs, where we’ll make revisions to business processes and we’ll build these components on a new base in a new modular approach to doing that as we modernize these systems.

It won’t be an overnight, everything-is-brand-new scenario.

Looking back, how much of a difference did IBM’s embrace of Linux make to IBM’s business? Looking forward, where do you see IBM and Linux going in the days ahead?

Where IBM’s embrace of Linux made a tremendous impact was on the acceptance of Linux in the industry as a server platform. Linux clearly began to be recognized as a mainstream, commercial platform once IBM embraced it.

IBM also has over 1,000 people working in the open-source community around Linux and making Linux more scalable, more industrial-strength.

Next Page: Oracle’s Linux lead and Project Fusion.

CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight offers thought leadership and best practices in the IT security and management industry while providing expert recommendations on software solutions for IT leaders. It is the trusted resource for security professionals who need network monitoring technology and solutions to maintain regulatory compliance for their teams and organizations.

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