IBM’s Watson Gets Busy This Tax Season

IBM’s Watson is probably best known as the computer that beat Jeopardy’s smartest contestants. Now, you can sit next to Watson and watch it work in person as it uses its awesome computing powers to help prepare your tax returns.

H&R Block has teamed up with IBM to bring Watson’s cognitive computing powers to the tax preparation field. Watson will help 70,000 tax professionals at 10,000 H&R Block offices across the country find tax breaks and increase refunds for customers.

Watson and Artificial Intelligence

Watson remembers everything. Watson uses artificial intelligence methods such as natural language processing to sort through and classify extensive amounts of information. It is able to detect even the slightest patterns in data that mere mortals might miss.

The same technology that helps doctors diagnose cancer and rare diseases was also used to digest 74,000 pages of the federal tax code, thousands of yearly tax law changes, and 60 years of tax preparation questions and answers in H&R Block’s data.

Tax professionals at H&R Block worked directly with Watson to teach it how to understand the complex world of tax preparation. In doing so, Watson proposed questions to tax pros about specific filing situations. The tax pros let Watson know when it was right and corrected it when it was wrong.

Over time, Watson honed its skills through the machine learning process. Its answers became better and more attuned to specific occupations and individual financial situations. It learned how to analyze situations that often affect tax filings, such as home purchases, the birth of a child, and marriage. And, Watson will continue to learn as it assists H&R Block’s customers in getting more money back with their tax returns.

Watson Is an Interactive Assistant

Watson isn’t replacing the human role in tax preparation. Rather, it is serving as an always-on, brilliant assistant. In a switch from ways of the past, you’ll be able to watch your taxes being prepared on a monitor in front of you as Watson works simultaneously with the tax preparer. The screen displays your tax filing information as Watson searches for credits and deductions available to you.

This may be many people’s first in-person introduction to Watson, but it will undoubtedly not be their last interaction with artificial intelligence as it continues to work its way into our everyday lives.

Watson - Block
On February 1, 2017, H&R Block CEO Bill Cobb (left) and IBM SVP David Kenny (right) announced that H&R Block’s tax professionals at approximately 10,000 branch offices across the U.S. will use a new, consumer-facing technology that incorporates IBM Watson - the largest deployment of Watson in retail locations. The new technology will help H&R Block tax professionals deliver the best outcome for each client's unique tax situation. (Photo by Guerin Blask) Source:

Public vs Private Cloud Technologies

Both public and private cloud hosting solutions greatly benefit any growing business requiring expansion capabilities. Leveraging this technology is key to improving many aspects of your business strategy including revenue growth and employee morale, but the debate continues as to which is superior. Thus, the beauty is in the eye of the user. Choose the one that’s the most pertinent to your company’s needs. If you’re having trouble deciding, here are some comparative features to help you make a more informed decision.

Public Cloud

The public cloud is an environment containing multiple users whereby each user purchases their own piece of the cloud server. The commune of the cloud computing world, public clouds are convenient in that they rarely require any type of contract and generally run pay by the hour services. Also a perk for some, public clouds are self managed, giving the user the freedom to set up and manage their own particulars.

The drawbacks, however, generally pertain to security. The public cloud provider customarily designates the hardware and network your virtual server relies on. Because other users in the cloud also share these facets, compliance requirements such as SOX or PCI are rarely possible. Therefore, development systems and web servers employing a business model that does not require security and compliance are the best candidates for public cloud computing.

Private Cloud

As the name suggests, the private cloud hosting environment caters to a single user. Your own personal computing residence, the private cloud provides your company with dedicated hardware and secure data storage capabilities that none of the center’s other clients can access. Security compliance standards are therefore easily achieved. An additional benefit is that the private cloud’s hardware, network and storage performance are also highly customizable.

This is a higher-end, more specialized service that aptly tends to cost more. Though you’re gaining many advantages over the public cloud, the resources provided in the private cloud are numerous and can potentially be under-utilized by smaller businesses. It’s also pertinent to consider many private clouds potentially require a contractual obligation.

As with any tech upgrade for your business, doing your due diligence is crucial to finding the solution that’s right for you.

2017 Annual Meeting Venue: Loews Sapphire Falls Resort in Orlando

May 7-10 will be a great time of year to visit Universal Orlando™. Loews Sapphire Falls Resort opened in July 2016 as the fifth hotel within the massive entertainment complex. With a Caribbean theme, the hotel offers 1,000 rooms and the largest hotel pool within the theme park, complete with water slides. The hotel also offers waterfront dining at the Amatista Cookhouse and, like all good Caribbean resorts, is home to both a poolside bar and a rum lounge.

Each hotel room has a mini-fridge to stow away any leftovers and in-room WiFi is also included at no additional charge. Rooms range in size from 529 square feet to 1,353 square feet. Universal theme park characters often make appearances in the hotel and their voices are used for wake-up calls in the hotel.

Russ Dagon, Vice President and Executive Project Director of Universal Creative, describes the hotel as follows: “it’s a different place, so we wanted to make sure we provided that respite from the theme park, but, at the same time, embrace the fact that we are so close to the theme park.”

From the hotel there are three easy and free connectors to Universal theme parks and City Walk – water taxi, shuttle, and a short walking path. Guests at the hotel receive a one-hour-early admission benefit at the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Hotel guests also have resort-wide charging privileges to their rooms, complimentary delivery of merchandise purchased throughout the resort, and complimentary shuttle service to Wet ‘n Wild®, SeaWorld®, and Aquatica™.

Our conference room rate of $190 is valid from May 1st through 17th. We look forward to seeing you in May and hope you can stay for a few extra days of vacation.

Learn More about the 2017 Annual Meeting and Exposition.

How IBM Power Systems Are Challenging x86 Servers in the Corporate Data Center

Intel’s x86 architecture has long been dominant in the corporate server marketplace for good reason. Chips based on the x86 framework have been at the heart of personal computers and other devices for more than three decades, and a standardized, widely adopted infrastructure for development and support of x86-based products is in place. The head start x86 enjoys over any potential challengers is immense.

But that hasn’t stopped IBM from joining the fray.

In 2014, IBM sold its x86 server business to Lenovo and pinned its hopes for increasing its penetration of the enterprise and cloud server markets on its upgraded Power Systems line. At that time the consensus in the media and among competitors was that IBM’s efforts would be too little, too late. Intel’s x86 standard was simply too well entrenched to be displaced.

But that assessment is beginning to change. Servers based on the company’s Power8 RISC processor seem to be gathering momentum in the marketplace. In 2015, IBM’s financial results revealed that it had enjoyed revenue growth in its Power Systems line for the first time in four years.

Key to that growth, say analysts, was IBM’s decision to add Linux as an alternative to its proprietary AIX operating system. There are now thousands of ISVs (independent software vendors) developing new Power8 Linux applications or working to port existing x86-based Linux applications to the Power environment. And, IBM claims, it has demonstrated some very good reasons for its customers to do exactly that.

In a June, 2015 conference presentation, the company revealed certified benchmark test results showing that Power8 servers significantly outperformed x86 servers in running financial workloads. In fact, an IBM Power System 824 server more than doubled the performance of a best-in-class x86 machine.

Says Terry Keene, CEO of Integration Systems, LLC,

“Comparing the x86 and Power processors on a micro-benchmark level will show little raw performance advantages for either. Comparing the two using enterprise workloads will demonstrate a significant advantage for Power in data workloads such as databases, data warehouses, data transaction processing, data encryption/compression, and certainly in high-performance computing.”

IBM is aggressively pursuing its objective of gaining a double-digit share of the server market by 2020. And with its even more powerful Power9 chips due out in 2017, the company seems well positioned to reach that goal.

Why x86 Servers Continue to Dominate the Data Center

It wasn’t that long ago that there was a widespread expectation that x86-based servers would soon be displaced in corporate data centers, and in the cloud, by servers that use ARM processors. But so far, things haven’t turned out that way. Servers using x86 chips still maintain a more than 90 percent market share. As Intel spokesman William Moss notes, “There has been a lot of hype about ARM in the datacenter, but very few deployments.”

ARM chips, which are RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processors, already dominate the mobile device market. They are widely used in such products as smartphones, laptops, and tablet computers. But their penetration of the server market has so far been minimal. And Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, thinks he knows why.

“What matters is all the infrastructure around the instruction set, and x86 has all that infrastructure,” Torvalds says. “Being compatible just wasn’t as big of a deal for the ARM ecosystem as it has been traditionally for the x86 ecosystem.”

In the world of Android-based mobile devices, the environment in which ARM chips have flourished, there is little standardization between manufacturers. Because the chipsets and hardware configurations of the various smartphones and tablets are unique to single products or product lines, the support infrastructure for ARM implementations is very fragmented. For example, it’s not possible to create a single Android update build that can be deployed across the devices of multiple manufacturers.

On the other hand, the x86 ecosystem has more than 30 years of development behind it, and standards are well understood and widely adhered to. That means it simply takes a lot less time and expense to develop and support x86 server environments than if ARM processors were used.

That’s not to say that the dominance of x86 in the data center is unassailable. IBM, for example, is making a determined effort to grab an increasing share of the server market with its own line of RISC processors, the Power8 and upcoming Power9 products.

But for the moment, x86 remains king of the data center realm.

Come back Thursday to read “How IBM Power Systems Are Challenging x86 Servers in the Corporate Data Center”.

IT Breaking Further into the Retail Industry

Purchasing Technology

With increasingly mobile companies, there is a greater need for technology that works for various areas. The following are some of the areas where technology is arising within small and large businesses alike:

  • Checkout – This is probably one of the most obvious as mobile card readers are now able to plug right into a headphone jack on a mobile device or even sync remotely with Bluetooth. Even product selection on-screen has become simpler, making this a preferred option to even regular registers.
  • Customer Tracking – Many checkout services also include options to add customer information for later billing or rewards programs. As a business grows, it works to retain customers and build a strong community of regulars. Easily integrated rewards programs are appealing to both the business and the customer.
  • Inventory/Ordering – After proceeding to checkout a customer, businesses with actual products need a means of tracking what they have used or sold and what they need to restock. Having one device to meet a company’s needs not only simplifies, it saves time and money where multiple platforms were previously required.
  • Budgets – Having everything run through one device makes it easier to work on company spreadsheets and track every penny in and out. With a business, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is why the numbers aren’t adding up. Anything that needs printing can also be done via wireless printing.
  • Human Resources – When a company reaches the point of needing more than one employee, the same device is able to schedule and track hours. Even plugging in sick or vacation days is a breeze.

With the ease of using mobile devices, some fear that they could “lose everything” if the device is lost or destroyed. This can be put to rest with the ability to back up the device. One of the more popular options is to use a cloud database because of the accessibility from almost anywhere.

The FinTech Future of IBM i

Buildings With fintech companies moving toward the creation of new transaction models for blockchain support of payment and lending transactions, IBM has launched new developer tools, software, and training programs targeted at financial services industry software developers. Version 7.3 of IBM i was released in April 2016. Requiring little to no onsite IT administration during standard operations, IBM i is making blockchain programming endeavors possible.

IBM BlueMix Garage developers are using the Bluemix PaaS (platform as a service) capabilities to test network solutions on the cloud designed to unlock the potential of blockchain. The Hyperledger Project set up to advance blockchain technology as a cross-industry, enterprise-level open standard for distributed ledgers, will be critical to development of the latest in fintech services IaaS (infrastructure application as service) technologies as they emerge.

The collaboration of software developers on blockchain framework and platform projects, stands to promote the transparency and interoperability of fintech IaaS. Providing the support required to bring blockchain technologies into adoption by mainstream commercial entities, BlueMix Garage developers are keen on IBM i database software programming as turn-key solution to operating systems on PowerSystems and PureSystems servers.

Recent release of fintech and blockchain courses by the IBM Learning Lab, offers training and use cases for financial operations analysts and developers. Offered in partnership with blockchain education programs and coding communities, IBM is engaged with the best in cognitive developer talent to capture ideas for the next generation of APIs, artificial intelligence apps, and business process solutions from the IBM i community.

Student Innovation Award – Recognizing “Innovation” in Information Systems and Technology

At the end of October in 2016, COMMON wrapped up its annual Fall Conference. It was there that we saw nearly 300 attendees, including 31 students and eight educators from eight different colleges getting top-notch education on a wide range of topics related to IBM i and Linux.

For the students and their educators, this experience allows them to get hands-on education and networking opportunities that they can’t get in a classroom.  But for the COMMON community, we recognize the great potential in the students as our future professionals. As such, we want our relationship with them to extend beyond the confines of the Conference through to the halls of their schools and continue throughout their education and well on into their careers.

Last year’s Student Innovation Award winner Liam Allen with Michelle August from the COMMON Education Foundation.

One of the ways COMMON seeks to engage students, and ultimately help them succeed is by offering a Student Innovation Award each year. Now in its third year, the Student Innovation Award recognizes an academic-related information system project that is considered “Innovative”. Projects can include anything that improves a process, increases performance, improves productivity or even the development of a new tool or application.  Open to all students and recent graduates enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program focused on Information Systems, Enterprise Computing, Computer Science, Information Technology or a related concentration, the Grand Prize winner receives an expense paid trip to COMMON’s 2017 Annual Meeting and Exposition. COMMON’s Annual Meeting and Exposition is a premier industry event, where students can have access to four full days of IT education from authorities in the industry.

The 2016 Student Innovation Award Winner was Liam Allen. At the time, Liam was a student at Fareham College in Hampshire, England. He built Project Alexis, a stack-based virtual machine that dynamically retrieves data from a physical file as a character without the need to declare any variables for functions. Liam’s project and subsequent exposure to key people and vendors resulted in him landing a full-time job within the industry. He can be seen regularly doing speaking engagements at numerous IBM i conferences.

The Student Innovation Award represents a unique opportunity for students to demonstrate their skillset and be recognized for their accomplishments. Winning can provide them with exposure to the key people that can launch their career in the right direction. If you are a student or a recent graduate with an innovation you’d like to share, consider submitting your project for the Student Innovation Award. More information on the award, its prizes and submission requirements can be found on our Student Innovation Award page.

IT Careers for 2017 – Calling All Cybersecurity Professionals


It should probably come as no surprise that 2017 forecasts as the year for cybersecurity professionals. It seems almost every week there is a report of another data breach from a company like Yahoo!, a major hospital or even some of the highest levels of government. Even technology companies such as Oracle and Cisco have reported security breaches in 2016.

According to Information Management, not only will cybersecurity positions be the most in demand IT Career of 2017, they will also garner the highest salaries of any position in information technology. Since the threat of an attack is becoming more commonplace, many companies are having to turn to third-party security services to manage an incident since it is so difficult to find in-house cybersecurity talent. For any new graduate looking for a new job, all this is very encouraging.

So what are some of the things an individual can do to prepare themselves for a career in cybersecurity? According to Burning Glass, 84% of their cybersecurity postings require at least a bachelor’s degree.  About one-third of their positions also call for industry certification. Of course, practical IT skills are essential as well. In other words, individuals need real, hands-on experience working with technology on a daily basis in order to know how to properly protect a system and resolve any security threats. Specifically, expertise in areas such as cloud computing/virtualization, database management, coding, auditing and compliance, firewalls, analytics and intelligence, SIEM management, access/identity management, advanced malware prevention and administering and configuring networks are all highly desirable skills for those interested in pursuing cybersecurity positions.

For those individuals still in school or for anyone working in another area of IT who thinks cybersecurity might be of interest, sign up for local security groups in your city or at your college or university. You can also get involved in industry competitions such as to challenge yourself and see how well your cybersecurity talents hold up against others.

For anyone deciding to pursue further education or skills in cybersecurity, 2017 promises to be a banner year.

Don’t forget that COMMON can help you with your cybersecurity training. View all security-related sessions available at the 2017 Annual Meeting and Exposition.

The Lifelong Benefits of Continuing Education

Why Continuing Education?

Many college grads initially consider their bachelor’s degree as a means to an end.  A degree they needed before they start their “real life”. With time, many come to realize that education is actually a lifelong pursuit. Continuing one’s education is not just a way to potentially have a career advantage, but can actually be a source of great personal enrichment.

IT is Dynamic

The field of information technology will never be a static field. Anyone who has worked in the field for just a relatively short time knows that it is incredibly dynamic. In truth, it can be difficult to even keep abreast of the constant evolution of ideas and concepts and their practical application in both the software and hardware arenas. By continuing one’s education, it shows your employer that you understand how critical it is for professionals to constantly engage in their field, even outside the workplace. One can learn a great deal about technology while on the job.  However, without participating in learning opportunities independent of your particular company, over time, the tendency for your knowledge and skills to become company-specific increases.

Personal Growth

On a more personal level, those working in IT are typically goal-oriented individuals. They actually perform better, both personally and professionally, when they are pursuing and achieving goals. Continuing education offers these types of individuals a natural outlet for their innate need for advancement and progress. From a financial perspective, since many companies offer as part of their benefit package, at least partial or perhaps even full reimbursement for tuition costs, it is a very wise move to take advantage of free educational opportunities.

Other Benefits

Lastly, the more obvious advantage of pursuing additional education comes into play when employees are bargaining for a higher salary and/or benefits. Employers typically will recognize the accomplishments of those with additional degrees and pay accordingly.