IBM and Cloud Foundry – Because War Makes the Strangest Bedfellows

Charles Dudley Warner is credited with making the well-known comment that war makes the strangest bedfellows and last week, in an act that would have impressed both him and The Art of War author Sun Tzu, IBM and Pivotal announced an alliance that, frankly, very few people saw coming. The deal sees the companies announce their eternal and undying love and endorses Pivotal’s Open Source PaaS offering Cloud Foundry to IBM’s legion of customers and channel partners. In doing so Big Blue makes a similar decision as it previously has with Open Source products MongoDB and OpenStack, and famously did in another era with Linux and commits to pushing an Open Source product to its customer base.

This is especially interesting coming from IBM who some commentators have suggested is one of the worst companies for committing “PaaS-washing”. Little more than a year ago the company was pushing the Pure Application Systems as a PaaS at which time then-analyst, and now Red Hat employee Krishnan Subramanian commented that IBM was co=opting the PaaS term in an attempt to simply sell some more tightly integrated hardware/software products. To move from that position in a little over 12 months to a point of anointing a third party, Open Source PaaS product is a revolution – especially since IBM competes strongly with Pivotal owner EMC? The answer is simple and can be summarized by the Chinese proverb;

My enemy’s enemy is my friend

Despite lots of work trying to sell software, services and more tightly integrated systems, IBM, alongside other traditionally hardware-centric companies like Dell and HP, derives most of its revenue from selling infrastructure. And there’s one massive direct threat, and a large indirect one, looming for that. Amazon Web Services is pulling a massive amount of the general application hosting market that IBM might once have been able to sell hardware to. Not only are they doing so with their public cloud, but the recent on-again/off-again AWS winning of the Federal Government private cloud contract was a blow that must have huge for IBM, their competitor in the tender process. If that wasn’t bad enough, the inexorable rise of AWS has shown a generation of IT decision makers that building infrastructure on top of commodity hardware is a safe tactic – the result of this has been awesome for the OEM hardware manufacturers, but a bitter pill for companies like IBM.

Add all of this up and you have a very desperate time that calls for some serious measures. Don’t underestimate just how desperate these times are, I can just imagine the internal comments within IBM when a staffer for Pivotal said publicly of the venerable vendor:

[IBM] realized they have to refresh their tech stack, and this is an important step along that way. They bring a lot of experience from enterprise

How does it feel to have to keep smiling when the pretender makes comments like that? Anyway, what could be a better way to hit a blow to AWS then to differentiate in the one area where AWS is week – the fact that their service is proprietary. Enterprise IT may have resolved itself to using cheap OEM hardware, but they still have justifiable concerns about locking themselves into one vendor by using proprietary higher-level services. And this is where Cloud Foundry, the Open Source PaaS, comes in.

It doesn’t hurt that Cloud Foundry sits nicely on top of Open Stack, the Open Source cloud operating system that, in a parallel to Cloud Foundry, is trying to differentiate itself from AWS. As an aside, last weeks call for the Open Stack community to embrace the AWS API is an interesting one when seen in light of the IBM/ Cloud Foundry news. In one swoop IBM gets to make its IaaS product, IBM OpenCloud, more attractive as Cloud Foundry becomes a core offering on the IaaS. While other OpenStack vendors are pushing infrastructure, IBM has a compelling message to customers that they can get a ready-to-run PaaS development environment, backed by the certainty of OpenStack and “IBM’s trusted cloud”. There’s some validity to that claim, but it’s also verging on the FUD that vendors a few years ago used to encourage customers to stay with them.

IBM can, however, justify claiming it has a real cloud now – alongside its deep OpenStack involvement, they recently stumped up a rumored $2B to acquire SoftLayer – have no doubt that Big Blue is serious about the cloud (and the real cloud this time, not some marketing-driven pseudo-cloud). It’s also handy that while other vendors are starting to offer more PaaS-like solutions, they do so in a generally proprietary way – with this deal IBM not only gets to contrast itself with #1 target AWS, but also gets to dig a knife into Microsoft Azure, Google App Engine and Salesforce’s Heroku for good measure.

The big question around all of this is how much substance the relationship really has. This industry is littered with examples of deep relationships that were launched with much fanfare only to wither on the vine. It’s much easier to use the term “paradigm changing industry partnership” than it is to really see one of those through to fruition. Add to that the fact that Pivotal’s own intentions are somewhat unknown and that it, too, may be playing a marriage of convenience and there’s some unknowns in all of this. IBM is talking the right messages – with the suggestion that WebSphere will be available on Cloud Foundry. IBM also says that they:

…have a lot of plans around those things – optimizing from a Java perspective [and] certainly from a services perspective to make a lot of our middleware capabilities available as a service through Cloud Foundry [such as] caching as a service, rules engine as a service

From the ecosystem perspective, we also have the slightly distasteful situation of Pivotal, the instigator of the Cloud Foundry project, playing favorites. Already there are distinct murmurings of disquietude from within the Cloud Foundry community with the mothership’s slightly Machiavelli approach towards “openness” causing concern for some members.

PaaS is getting more interesting, that in itself is a nice validation for those of us who have said for awhile that PaaS is the future of the cloud. That said interesting does not equate to widespread uptake and that’s something that has been missing from the PaaS landscape. This announcement will likely help with that. The question now is what do IBM’s competitors, HP and Dell for example, do to counter this threat and offer their own PaaS solutions? interesting times.

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