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If it has been abundantly clear for quite some time that IBM is facing a number of significant challenges, it is also clear that Virginia Rometty is a woman that is able to face them. She’s never been one to bandy words, and her message to investors in this year’s annual report is no different. Going forward, IBM will be focusing on data, the cloud and “systems of engagement”. 

Usually, the annual report of any major corporation shares at least two of the qualities of drying paint: it takes a long time and it's not very interesting.

IBM’s Strategy

However, this one is interesting because it fills in many of the gaps in its strategy that IBM has been a little bit unclear about until now, including the role of hardware in its business over the coming years.

When IBM announced some weeks ago that it was selling it is x86 server business to Lenovo, many commentators — and investors — were questioning IBM’s strategy around hardware going forward.

It didn’t quite create the panic former HP CEO Leo Apotheker created when he announced he was considering taking HP out of the PC business, but it did result in a number of reactions, not all of which were favorable.

However, just as Meg Whitman clarified HP’s position on PCs, so too has Rometty on IBM’s plans for hardware. Big Blue is staying in the game and by the looks of it for the long-haul, she said:

IBM will remain a leader in high-performance and high-end systems, storage and cognitive computing, and we will continue to invest in (research and development) for advanced semiconductor technology."

That must come as some relief to those IBM workers that are still employed in its hardware division, even if it’s no consolation to the former x86 workers in China who have to move to Lenovo once the deal is closed, and were still on strike this morning over the deal.

Big Data, Cloud and Storage

The decision to keep the upper-end hardware, though, is not a random one. It reflects the fact that for the foreseeable future, IBM will be banking on high-end servers to push its big data, cloud and storage business.

And banking really is the word here. IBM is expecting this business to develop over the years, even if the performance of some of its other divisions over the past year “did not meet expectations.”

That said, the shareholders of any other company would probably be happy with the dividend increase of 12 percent that IBM delivered, and the 18th successive year that IBM has raised the dividend. Not Rometty, though:

In 2013 we invested $3.1 billion for 10 acquisitions. We invested $3.8 billion in net capital expenditures. We invested $6.2 billion in R&D, while earning the most US patents for the 21st straight year. However, revenue in 2013, at $99.8 billion, was down 5 percent and 8 percent on pre-tax incomes."

A core part of addressing these issues is the upper-end hardware business which is being re-focused to provide support for the other parts of its business like cloud computing, or big data.

For those that rightly point out that it has to address these issues in a very competitive market where the likes of Pivotal or Intel are competition, Rometty has this reply:

We are accelerating the move of our Systems product portfolio — in particular, Power and storage — to growth opportunities and to Linux, following the lead of our successful mainframe business. The modern demands of Big Data, cloud and mobile require enterprise-strength computing, and no other company can match IBM’s ongoing capabilities and commitment to developing those essential technologies."

In sum, IBM has the back-up and support of a wide range of businesses that other companies don’t — and this is why the future of hardware at IBM looks secure, at least for the moment.

1.The Rise Of Data

Even if businesses spend a lot of time talking about customer engagement, customer experiences and improving the former by developing the latter, at the heart of all this is data and the management of data. In fact, Rometty compares data to historical drivers like steam power in 18th century, electricity for the 19th century, and hydrocarbons for the 20th century.