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Why IBM thinks it's a contender in the Great Cloud Battle

Last week I attended the 2013 Federal Cloud Innovation Forum hosted by IBM and FCW (a sister to GCN). The backdrop to the forum consisted of two significant and related events: First, IBM reported a 4 percent drop in third-quarter revenue from a decline in hardware and emerging market sales; second, IBM had filed two requests for an injunction as part of its appeal of the Court of Federal Claims’ ruling to allow Amazon Web Services  to start work on the CIA cloud computing contract. 

On Tuesday, that case took yet another turn, as FCW reported that IBM had withdrawn its injunction requests, though the company has not entirely ruled out the possibility of appealing the ruling.

Regardless of what ultimately happens with the CIA contract, these events show both why IBM is fighting to push into the cloud computing market and just how fiercely it intends to compete. In that same vein, the Cloud Innovation Forum showcased IBM’s strategy for moving forward. The theme of the event was “Innovation Without Risk,” and it represented IBM’s two-pronged strategy for its offensive onto the federal cloud beachhead. Let’s examine the components of that strategy and analyze IBM’s chance of succeeding against the dominant cloud players like Amazon, Google and Microsoft.  

In regards to innovation, IBM’s strategy has four parts:

1. The SoftLayer acquisition. To compete in the infrastructure-as-a-service market, IBM acquired cloud provider SoftLayer in July of this year. SoftLayer has a global infrastructure of 13 data centers, including a Washington, D.C., area location, and customers like Yelp, Fitbit, MailChimp and the Disney interactive games site. SoftLayer markets its “enterprise-grade” IaaS by promising superior performance and reliability. SoftLayer introduced an innovation called the “Bare Metal Cloud” that is a performance play on provisioning cloud services and does not require a hypervisor. This is similar to Linux Containers in that they also do not require a hypervisor and are more efficient than virtual machines.  

2. Creation of a Cloud Innovation Center in Washington, D.C. IBM promises a center that can draw on the expertise of 500 cloud experts to collaborate with federal agencies on their cloud challenges. This is an expertise play, or a “high-touch” approach, to the cloud market that could be successful. It is yet to be seen whether this center will offer true innovation or just offer access to cloud professionals who help apply IBM offerings.

3. PaaS platform(s). IBM has several platform as a service options, including BlueMix, which leverages an open-source project called Cloud Foundry, and JazzHub, which provides project management and collaborative development in the cloud. From reviewing the websites, these are nascent efforts and their overall impact on the PaaS space is unknown. IBM’s angle here is to focus on open source, open standards and attempt to attract PaaS developers interested in avoiding vendor lock-in. The offering, being based on Cloud Foundry, does not offer the same breadth of services as either Microsoft Azure or AWS.

4. Big data clusters. IBM has enabled its big data product, Big Insights, to easily run on a Hadoop cluster (of any size) in the cloud. Of course, this is nearly identical to Amazon’s Elastic Map Reduce service but does not seem to offer any advantages.

With regard to reducing risk, IBM’s strategy has three parts:

1. Improved security. IBM touted Secure Multi-Tenant Services as a new SoftLayer offering.  Gen. Colin Powell, the keynote speaker at the Cloud Innovation Forum, when speaking  about cloud security said: “Is it secure? Is it safe? We heard the same things about online banking when it first came out. Now we wouldn’t live without it.” Cloud security appears to be an issue that is diminishing in importance as the large cloud vendors offer more security controls than most privately run data centers. Given that, improved security will probably not provide IBM with a competitive advantage. 

2. Open standards for interoperability. This is a significant push for IBM as the company seeks to leverage its “openness” as a competitive advantage over other vendors.  The key standards IBM is supporting and developing are:

    • OpenStack. This standard is promulgated by the OpenStack Foundation, which has a 13-member technical committee, a board of directors and a 5,600-member user community.  It is a standard for an open-source cloud operating system that allows customers to create private clouds that offers compute, network and storage services.  
    • Cloud Foundry. This open-source “enterprise PaaS” implementation promises simplified application development and deployment. Cloud Foundry supports a number of languages and frameworks. Overall, the PaaS area is muddled at this time with no clearly dominant platform.
    • OASIS Topology and Orchestration Specification for Cloud Applications (TOSCA). This is an XML standard that lets users describe the requirements and capabilities of a service template for execution by a cloud provider. The goal of the standard is to enhance the portability of cloud applications and services. While there are some large vendors that are TOSCA technical committee sponsors, like IBM, HP and Red Hat, none of the current dominant cloud providers (Google, AWS and Microsoft) support this standard. 
    • Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration (OSLC). This standard is based on the W3C Linked Data standard. The purpose of the standard is to simplify development tool integration, and this standard’s work will soon move to OASIS.

3. Cloud Standards Customer Council.  This is an end-user based advocacy group for cloud standards that seeks to accelerate the adoption of the cloud.  While this group puts out white papers and reports — and standards are important to mitigating risk in systems — it is unclear what its effect is on the cloud industry.  

One serious problem for IBM is that its numerous offerings (even more than what is covered above) are not very cohesive, seem to overlap and may confuse the potential customers and developers that the company is trying to attract. Thus, the strategy is a bit muddled by all these intersecting tangents. 

Additionally, it is interesting that IBM is so focused on standards that are largely being ignored by the major cloud players. This hard reality was not mentioned in the forum, and the panel on cloud standards was the weakest one of the entire event. This is an interesting tactic as it attempts to use standards to create a level playing field where one does not currently exist. 

That is the hard truth of the situation: IBM has not been a significant player in the cloud market and it is trying to use standards, open source and acquisitions to be relevant in this space. I’ve worked on standards for many years, and they are best left to mature technologies where “what is best” is sufficiently known. Otherwise, innovation can be stifled.  

Overall for the cloud market, these maneuvers are yet another sign that the cloud industry is still evolving in both the areas of innovation and risk. Certainly IBM is “all in” and willing to commit significant resources to innovate and change the current status quo in cloud computing. 

My new book, “The Great Cloud Migration,” discusses the role (and other manifestations) of cloud evolution and its impact on migrating applications to the cloud.  Some other areas of evolution include containers as a service, the blurring of lines between PaaS and IaaS, the Internet of Things’ influence on the cloud and the state of cloud interoperability. Fortunately, there are techniques and technologies, like technical cloud brokers, that can mitigate these changes.  

In the end, the best part of the conference was the keynote by Gen. Powell — a great speaker and great American — who kicked off the conference with an inspirational speech on leadership.  When he was secretary of State, he immediately introduced a technology refresh and said of the challenge, “You can change hardware and software faster than you can change brainware.” In many ways, IBM’s challenge is similar as it tries to change the brainware of corporate and government executives to see the company as an innovation leader in the cloud computing space.

Michael C. Daconta ( is the Vice President of Advanced Technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former Metadata Program Manager for the Homeland Security Department. His new book is entitled, The Great Cloud Migration: Your Roadmap to Cloud Computing, Big Data and Linked Data.

Posted by Michael C. Daconta on Oct 30, 2013 at 7:36 AM


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