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IBM taking on Amazon? Or just taking over?

A week ago, IBM's cloud strategy seemed a bit scattered. But after throwing its impressive weight behind a homegrown public cloud service, Big Blue should find itself leading the cloud market.

Weekly cloud computing update

As of yesterday, IBM is actually ahead of the game in cloud computing. How so? IBM just announced a consolidated and reinvigorated direction for its cloud services wing, which had been floundering a bit.

By far the most significant part of the announcement was the launch of a general purpose public cloud platform, the Smart Business Cloud - Enterprise. This finally puts IBM in the same category as cloud leaders like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Rackspace, despite years of claims from Big Blue that they were cooking with cloud.

IBM is getting me to their cloud by mail.

Reactions have been mixed. "It's like hearing a cat bark," said one blogger. "Apples vs. Ferraris" went a slightly more positive reaction.

It doesn't quite line up with what people expect of a cloud computing service. It's not consumer friendly, it's definitely not cheap ($1,000 to setup and $300 per month for a VPN tunnel to your virtual machines, and IBM kindly offers to train your employees to use the service for $3,000 per head) and the whole thing does not have the immediacy and the easy ubiquity of Rackspace Cloud or AWS.

How IBM's public cloud differs
The whole point of cloud computing is its demonstrable, accessible utility. Once you're set up on AWS or Rackspace, getting servers and services is just as simple as opening a console and typing commands. That's the reason it took off and turned into this big new thing. It was there, it was useful and it was easy.

IBM's cloud is a bit different. Fundamentally, it meets the criteria for cloud: self-service, elastic, on-demand, a blind resource pool delivered online. But when I signed up, IBM didn't ask for a credit card. It asked for a P.O. and a billing address: they're going to invoice me by mail, apparently. I'm going to get a "Welcome Packet" in two weeks to get me going on IBM's cloud. I had to give organizational references, my name, an account owner's name, an account administrator's name, any additional administrators or users' names and plow through 4 different PDFs to agree to the Terms of Service.

IBM is getting me to their cloud by mail. It's a mail-order cloud. That's not the speed-of-thought delivery AWS pioneered and owns. That's, um, different.

Getting a server up on AWS took me 45 minutes the first time, and that's only because I read everything twice, took notes for an article I was writing and backed up my global system path before adding a few AWS-specific variables. I'll be launching my first IBM server in the cloud sometime after Tax Day, if I'm very lucky.

IBM is in a messaging pickle when it comes to cloud. It basically is the IT services company; it's all they do. Software and hardware are incidental to the end product, which is having poorly socialized men and women in skinny ties deliver your IT needs. Cloud computing is just a way, basically, of delivering an IT service (CPU and storage) in a way nobody quite nailed down before.

IBM knows this. Despite the stodgy reputation, IBM is on the forefront on information technology in every way. They are, with the caveat of being a for-profit global corporation, the world's premier computing science research facilities. Advanced automation and process is their bread and butter. They just didn't bother to keep up with innovators like AWS.

Can IBM become a cloud leader overnight?
So how can IBM show up with a cloud years after AWS perfected the model (and arguably changed the face of IT forever) and somehow now be a leader? First, despite their slightly moldy old way of going about it, IBM has what many enterprises need: baked-in identity management, familiar billing practices and gold-plated support as a first option, not the last. This is their entire métier.

It's like hearing a cat bark.

A blogger on IBM's entrance into public cloud

Second, from IBM's altitude in the IT marketplace, they are simply the first vendor to have a true public cloud option. HP has announced a plan to do something like this, maybe, sometime this year, if the stars align. Dell has glommed onto VMware and might also manage a vCloud hosting environment at some point. Microsoft has Azure, which is a fascinating science project at this point. Oracle has…well, Oracle has Larry Ellison for cloud. Fujitsu and SGI and all the rest are stuck in neutral. AWS, Rackspace and all the others are sideshows in the online business carnival.

Out of all the big IT vendors, IBM is the first and only one to have a fully operational public cloud that real-world enterprises will look at twice. It is also years ahead of all the rest in every other IT service delivery arena. Right now, it is in the lead.

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for Contact him at

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