IBM shapes its cloud for the enterprise

At IBM's InterConnect show in Vegas, IBM added to its tall stack of cloud and analytics technology, while offering aid to enterprises straining to keep up with the pace of change

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IBM may be late to the cloud, but its cloud technology stack has been catching up at a furious rate.

Another key milestone was reached at the IBM InterConnect event this week, when IBM jumped on the container bandwagon, promising an "enterprise-class" version of Docker containers with added security. Local versions of OpenStack and Cloud Foundry were also announced, intended to support IBM's hybrid approach to enterprise cloud computing.

As I noted last October, the IBM vision is compelling: Bluemix is shaping up to be one of the richest PaaS offerings around (see the InfoWorld review), steeped in analytics and Watson machine learning APIs. As Robert LeBlanc, the new senior vice president of IBM Cloud, put it when I interviewed him at the show, IBM's approach is to "infuse analytics" into almost everything built on Bluemix and provide data and analytics as part of the application. The Apple/IBM partnership is but one example.

Analytics is also a key part of IBM's business message. At the keynote, lots of talk flew about "business transformation" through data analytics involving everything from weather pattern data to Twitter sentiment analysis, with testimony from early customers Airbus and Citi.

The high-level business pitch is to the large enterprises that rely on IBM professional services. You can be sure IBM's various professional services groups will use Bluemix as a platform to build whatever their clients want. The cloud itself is not outsourcing, but it can be an excellent vehicle for that. As LeBlanc told me: "Most clients need help. If they had the skills and they could do it themselves, they could go to SoftLayer or Bluemix."

No doubt some will -- and some unknown proportion of independent developers and startups will as well. LeBlanc sees attracting developers as "critical." Here's how he says he will achieve that:

We built our DeveloperWorks program years and years ago when we were building out WebSphere, and we built out to several million developers. So we know how to do it. But you've also got to get to the developers where they are in the communities that they live in. We do a lot of hackathons and local meetups. That's how you evangelize in the developer community -- and word of mouth. The developer community is quick to share. What we're trying to do is get people together to try it.

Currently, IBM has free tiers to lure developers to its Bluemix platform, with much of the offering still in beta. But according to Martin Heller, who reviewed Bluemix for InfoWorld, when you get down to business, the usual caveats about cloud pricing apply:

There's real money to pay once you start scaling up and out and exceed the free quotas, e.g., 512MB of Cloud Foundry RAM and 375GB-hours per month. And that's the point the sales folks call and offer you a convenient annual subscription bundle. The unit pricing is as deceptive as Amazon's pricing. Once you start adding up little things such as gigabyte-hours and storage and API calls for a real app, and throw in support costs, it can be a big monthly cost. For example, the one non-beta Watson service is priced at $0.60 per API call after the first 100 calls a month.

Aside from the Watson APIs, there's nothing particularly unique about this scheme; in a sense, it reinforces that IBM is serious about the cloud. But it underscores that customers need to dig into cloud pricing and prepare for migration if the need arises.

On this score, LeBlanc professes full support for open standards. He sees IBM's partnerships with OpenStack, Cloud Foundry, Node.js, and Docker as an eventual guarantee of cloud interoperability and workload portability, provided the rest of the industry supports those standards.

IBM support for Docker actually seemed a little ahead of the curve to me, given the challenge by Core OS to Docker containers -- this is still Wild West territory. But LeBlanc affirmed that support in no uncertain terms:

Look, when I make a commitment to a standard like that, I'm almost giving the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Clients will make decisions based on what we do, so we don't take that very lightly. I can't say to my client a year from now sorry, after you spent all that money, I was joking. That will not fly with an enterprise client. So we're definitely committed.

Ultimately, I have a feeling much of IBM's enterprise base will be insulated from such details. The hybrid cloud is at the core of IBM's pitch, where IBM provides the bridge from on-premises infrastructure to the cloud, and professional services determine the best locations to store customer data and run customer applications. Yes, in some cases customers will do it themselves, but a robust cloud with an advanced PaaS is as much for the convenience of IBM's developers as it is for customers.

Such handholding extends to IBM's local versions of OpenStack and Bluemix, in beta now and generally available later this year. Customers may run both in their own four walls, but according to LeBlanc, IBM will "manage the updates and the infrastructure."

It's a scary time for large enterprises. They have enormous sunk cost in legacy systems, yet technology is changing all around them at an unprecedented pace. IBM has made the leap technologically -- and now has a credible value proposition to enterprise customers who need to cross that chasm as well.

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