What IBM/Sun talks could mean for cloud computing

Both Sun and IBM have ambitious cloud plans that might benefit from the proposed merger

Just as rumors that IBM is considering an acquisition of Sun Microsystems cropped up Wednesday, Sun announced a new cloud computing service that will compete against Amazon's online storage and computing platforms.

It's not clear how the Sun Storage Cloud and Compute Cloud would fit into a larger IBM/Sun company, if the rumored acquisition does occur. But cloud computing services and the infrastructure needed to support them will likely be crucial to both companies going forward, whether they enter into an acquisition deal or not.

"Clearly, cloud is very important to IBM," says analyst Judith Hurwitz of Hurwitz & Associates. "And I think it's going to be one of the primary ways that IBM goes to market."

[ Related: IBM in talks to buy Sun Microsystems. | The potential merger also has  major implications for Oracle, SAP, and other companies that rely heavily on Java. ]

Despite Sun's move to offer its own cloud compute and storage services, the company's large hardware business could make it an important player in the market to provide infrastructure to cloud providers -- including its own competitors.

IBM also has a dual role in the cloud market. Big Blue offers a hosted version of Lotus and is building cloud computing centers that will let customers store data remotely.

Similarly to Sun, though, IBM also sees itself as the provider of server and storage infrastructure to all sorts of cloud services that deliver highly virtualized, massively scalable IT infrastructure over the Web. Moreover, IBM is pushing the idea of private clouds, in which very large enterprises deliver services to end-users in a model emulating the self-service capabilities widely available on the Web.

"The companies have a similar view of the cloud," says Pund-IT analyst Charles King. "Frankly, both IBM and Sun are basically plumbing suppliers for IT. They're very much focused on the infrastructure offerings."

Neither King nor Hurwitz thinks that IBM owning Sun would make it difficult to sell infrastructure to the cloud providers that Sun will be competing against. Both IBM and Sun have stressed the importance of openness and interoperability among different cloud services.

"What I see is a company [IBM] that is trying to say 'we'll collaborate with Amazon and Google and all of the vendors out there who have cloud capabilities,'" Hurwitz says. "I don't see them trying to say 'we're going to replace Amazon.' ... I do think you're going to see them focus a lot on interoperability, and private clouds."

IBM sees cloud services as being provided through multiple types of servers, King says. Whereas x86 is the architecture used by Amazon and Google, IBM doesn't see any reason not to use Unix and the mainframe in the cloud. "From that standpoint, adding Solaris on Sun's Sparc servers to the mix would make perfect sense," King says.

Sun also has longstanding customer relationships with major telco providers, who have purchased racks and racks of Sparc servers, King notes. Some in the industry believe the emerging cloud computing service market will be dominated by telcos, rather than the likes of Google, Amazon and Yahoo. If that is true, King says, an IBM purchase of Sun would give Big Blue further inroads into the market for providing infrastructure to cloud services.

The server market would clearly be shaken up by an IBM/Sun merger. IDC's latest numbers show IBM leading the market with 36 percent share, and Sun holding fourth place with 9 percent.

Cisco's announcement this week of a new blade server may be pushing IBM toward consolidating its stranglehold, Hurwitz says. "We anticipated [the Cisco] announcement would heat up the acquisition market," she says.

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Another question is whether Sun's virtualization capabilities would fit into IBM. Big Blue has never built its own x86 hypervisor, and Sun's x86 virtualization software hasn't made much of a splash in a market dominated by VMware. But Sun's virtualization management capabilities may be attractive to IBM, Hurwitz says.

Network World is an InfoWorld affiliate

This story, "What IBM/Sun talks could mean for cloud computing" was originally published by Network World.

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