IBM’s Cloud Platform Strategy Is Getting Legitimate

After a slow and somewhat disjointed start, it looks like IBM is starting to build some serious momentum in the Public Cloud Platform game. 

The company got a leg up with its 2013 acquisition of Softlayer, a managed hosting company with a small but legitimate hybrid cloud solution. Behind a self-service interface and set of APIs, it blended per-month and per-hour offerings as well as virtual and bare metal resources in a way that let customers ease into cloud from traditional hosting (Look for a full analysis of this IaaS offering in the fall 2014 update to our Forrester Wave of Public Cloud Platforms). Softlayer also brought a strong understanding about what it takes to build a hyper-scale environment, which IBM has listened to and learned from since. Then IBM partnered with Pivotal to bring CloudFoundry to its Softlayer platform and build anew a successor to its IBM Smartcloud Application Services middleware environment which had struggled. After a furious effort to get its software division to think and move at agile speeds, the company brought out BlueMix in Q1 and started populating a cloud marketplace of ISVs. And now, in the last two weeks it has taken BlueMix to general availability, added differentiated data analytics services in the form of Watson Cloud and announced a serious mobile play through its partnership with Apple. While all of these latest efforts are in their infancy, they point to a much more robust cloud offering from a clear enterprise leader. And these are moves that bear watching and consideration for all clients who have yet to move significant portions of their application portfolio into the cloud. Let’s examine each of these latest moves and why they point to greater relevancy for IBM’s cloud platform:

* BlueMix over Cloud Foundry - While hype is running high around Pivotal’s open source multi tenant middleware platform, there are few legitimate enterprise implementations to date. ActiveState has built a nice business around the solution; sufficient for a startup. Pivotal has what is mostly a demo environment running atop AWS. And CenturyLink, through its Tier 3 acquisition has a small but growing business around its implementation of AppFog, and created the C# extension of the platform, IronFoundry. With the announcement of commercial availability of BlueMix, IBM now has potentially the most complete and robust Cloud Foundry implementation. BlueMix is of course far more than the base Cloud Foundry. It incorporates myriad middleware and pluggable cloud services from IBM and ISVs in the IBM Cloud Marketplace, a collection of open source and third party middleware components that can be added to the base offering. What this means is that if you want to take applications into production on top of Cloud Foundry, it’s hard to argue against doing so on the IBM Cloud. 

* Watson brings AI to predictive applications -  Clearly IBM sees big data and analytics as a key investment area for the company and put its money behind its mouth with a bulk of acquisitions over the last few years. But while these moves, plus DB2 investments and other internal initiatives around data and business intelligence have garnered IBM strong big data credibility, it hasn’t positioned IBM as a visionary for the next generation of data-driven applications. That’s come through its labs' investments in Watson. Sadly, for most of its life, Watson has been just that, a lab project that required the full attention of a select set of IBM engineers to make it do its artificial intelligence magic. Until now. With the general availability of Watson Cloud, enterprise developers can now tap into the intelligence of Watson with their applications as they would any other BlueMix service. Watson services are a step beyond standard analytics in that they combine data understanding with the ability to make intuitive leaps and draw multi-step conclusions from the data sets analyzed. In other words, enterprises can leverage Watson for services, such as the medical advisor build for the Cleveland Clinic by IBM Global Technical Services. But now without the hand holding. We see big promise in these capabilities for delivering more robust customer experiences and more contextually intelligent applications. And given that the service is accessible on a pay-as-you-go basis there is little barrier to experimenting with it.

* IBM Cloud now a highly credible mobile play - It’s been hard to understand why anyone building mobile apps would use IBM Cloud as their backend. Sure they had some mobile services making their way to production-ready on Bluemix and IT admins could leverage Maas360. But if you wanted to maximize your development productivity you went to AWS where you could pick from a library of MBaaS capabilities. Few mobile applications are fully client-side. The majority heavily leverage back-end functions, datasets and services that originate from AWS, Google or Rackspace. Now that IBM is carrying the enterprise support flag for Apple and building a full stable of iOS applications and platform services, they may have just vaulted into a leadership position for hosting corporate-facing iOS applications. This move will make IBM Cloud a very attractive deployment option for iOS-focused developers. IBM brings an end-to-end support value proposition through this partnership that will be very attractive to enterprises buyers and the ISVs courting them. Read our QuickTake on this partnership on Forrester.com.

Again, IBM is early in its implementation of this new cloud platform strategy but its moves of late are shrewd and compelling. If any doubt still lingers about IBM’s true commitment to cloud, they should be shelved for now. While the promise of a $10B investment in cloud may have been more of a catchall statement aimed at Wall Street, these three moves put real meat behind the strategy. 

Have these moved swayed your thinking? Let us know in the Forrester client collaboration forums

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