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Did IBM just change the game in private cloud?

A beta program from IBM's Tivoli division may upend the private cloud fight. With Tivoli for VMware, IT shops get an intriguing option for enterprise cloud management.

Does IBM have the wherewithal to compete in the commodity hardware cloud?

Say "IBM" and "cloud computing" in the same breath and many IT managers will roll their eyes. The IT leader's cloud strategy has been seen by many as a mess.

But that may be about to change. IBM recently revealed a beta program of updates to its Tivoli software that may breathe new life into the company's private cloud ambitions.

[These updates] are quite significant.

Judith Hurwitz, enterprise IT strategy consultant

The new capabilities include support for VMware's VIM APIs in a variety of Tivoli tools, including image repositories, automated provisioning, application deployment and Tivoli Storage Manager (integrating TSM and VMware heretofore has not been pretty). Enhancements to Tivoli Provisioning Manager may include booting VMware images directly from block storage instead of having them preloaded into memory. IBM claims that images can be booted in seconds.

"I think that this is basically an abstraction layer over VMware," said Mladen Vouk, vice provost of IT at North Carolina State University.

NCSU operates an IBM POWER7-powered private cloud that serves more than 80,000 instances over the course of a school year. Vouk said that IBM’s "advanced virtual deployment software" amounted to a significant breakthrough for managing infrastructure and operating a virtualized environment.

The upshot, Vouk said, is that when these enhancements are generally available -- which could be quite some time -- operators will not have to juggle vCenter and Tivoli in a mixed environment. They can do it all from Tivoli, including x86 servers, various hypervisors, mainframe resources and storage under one umbrella. That may prove compelling for IT environments that aren’t 100% commodity hardware. It might also gently decouple some longstanding assumptions about enterprise virtualization.

"What [users] can do if they’ve done Tivoli right, is they can replace VMware with KVM, or Xen for that matter. They can choose Microsoft Hyper-V, use whatever they like," Vouk said.

He added that Tivoli is a mature, OS-agnostic automation and provisioning platform, and IBM’s large software portfolio can match anything VMware or Microsoft can bring forward in systems management.

Other updates in the beta program include a federated image library (images can be in lots of different places in your network), image mobility (like VMotion) and "application deployment utilizing composite images" (application templates like 3Tera). If IBM can pull together its wealth of infrastructure automation software and make it work across the most common commodity hardware and virtualization platforms out there, it may dominate over other claimants to the private cloud.

IBM searches for its cloud strategy mojo
Cloud computing took off when Amazon Web Services demonstrated that cheap, commodity hardware and homebrew systems management could generate big economies of scale to deliver IT. To many people, IBM is proprietary hardware, complex management and boatloads of obscure software. Most enterprises planning a transition to cloud-like environments look at commodity x86 servers and VMware, for the most part.

And when IBM delivers, the results can be a train wreck. Data center consolidation projects in Indiana, which were sold with claims many would associate with cloud -- automated provisioning, metering and scale out to IBM’s infrastructure and service -- turned into billion-dollar boondoggles that left admins disgruntled.

Nevertheless, what’s really been underreported is the depth and breadth of what IBM's done in terms of the cloud, said Judith Hurwitz, CEO of Hurwitz & Associates Inc., and an enterprise IT strategy consultant. She called IBM a sleeping giant in terms of how many different aspects of cloud computing in which it has a base.

She said that, for an enterprise to actually operate a cloud computing environment, fundamental building blocks in process were necessary, like service oriented architecture(SOA) principles, infrastructure automation and business process automation -- all of which IBM has major stakes in across its business units. It also has decades of IT services delivery in infrastructure and software.

Hurwitz thinks this launch is the beginning of IBM tying them together into a seamless, enterprise-ready cloud platform. "It’s quite significant," she said.

Hurwitz said that under POWER7 and, loosely speaking, in mainframe deployments, IBM had installed a tremendous number of viable cloud infrastructures. Many of these are in academic institutions and other bastions of high tech, but Hurwitz said IBM understood the model just fine. It was the act of pulling together the various pieces from across the company that had been hard for Big Blue.

IBM also noted that Swiss state-operated railway corporation Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB) is using the new capabilities as part of its IT infrastructure.

Could IBM render VMware a non starter?
If IBM can keep its act together on this cloud platform program and deliver an end product that lives up to the promise, it will become the primary competition not only for VMware and its management tools but Microsoft, HP, BMC, CA and all the rest.

While its cloud computing efforts to date are either semi-public cloud services like the Small Business Test and Development Cloud or lukewarm converged hardware offerings like CloudBurst, Tivoli is a common systems management platform in the enterprise and IBM is in a lot of heterogeneous IT shops. VMware, also broadly installed in the enterprise, continues to push its virtualization management tools for cloud computing.

IBM has promised its Tivoli platform can do everything VMware's platform can do and more. So if CIOs could pick one, ignore the other and get a private cloud, would they say no?

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for Contact him at

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