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IBM SoftLayer vital to Big Blue's software, hardware success

SoftLayer holds the key to IBM's enterprise hardware and software success -- as long as its competitive strategies work against AWS, Google and Azure.

While SoftLayer was known in the cloud computing world as an up-and-comer the last few years, making top 10 lists as a company to watch, it struggled to get a seat at the table of Fortune 500 companies. But with IBM's acquisition of the company last July, things changed.

Lance CrosbyLance Crosby

Not only does Lance Crosby, CEO of IBM SoftLayer, now have access to the clients and resources of the world's second largest high-tech company, he is at the heart of what will drive much of IBM's cloud software strategies involving all of Big Blue's software and hardware groups.

Crosby recently sat down with SearchCloudComputing to talk about some technologies that will be revealed during the company's Pulse conference this month, its competition with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and what life is like working for a company with deep pockets.

How will the recent $1.2 billion investment in your data centers move IBM's SoftLayer-based strategies forward?

Lance Crosby: We can now accelerate the growth of SoftLayer by taking it to 40 sites by the end of this year and bring the entire portfolio to all markets worldwide. The exciting thing for me is bringing all these new and existing PaaS [Platform as a Service] and SaaS [Software as a Service] properties on to SoftLayer. At the [IBM Pulse 2014] event this month, we will be announcing the general availability of about two dozen of these properties that have been moved to the SoftLayer platform.

What is the biggest advantage to those applications now living on SoftLayer compared with SmartCloud Foundation?

Crosby: IBM, like a lot of other large businesses, spun up virtualization and called it cloud. But SoftLayer only compares itself to three other competitors: Amazon, Google and [Windows] Azure. We built our OSS [optimized operations support] systems and VSS [virtual server services] systems to drive everything. Virtualization is only a component of [our OSS and VSS systems], but it alone is not what drives [our cloud]. We built [SoftLayer] on software, which is how we are able to deploy all virtualization, whether it is VMware, Hyper-V or Parallels.

What makes it different from the competitors is it is single-tenant or multi-tenant -- we don't really care. All of our competitors are multi-tenant so they can only do shared resources.

Editor's note: Among competitors AWS, Google and Windows Azure, SoftLayer is the only single-tenant option. However, other cloud service providers, including Rackspace and Internap Network Services Corp., provide single-tenant clouds.

IBM finally presented a coherent cloud strategy in April 2011 when it pulled together a number of fragmented pieces. But not much has happened since then. What happened?

Crosby: IBM was like a lot of other organizations -- cloud was just emerging and they were trying to figure out what their strategy was. They did do a lot of good things, including acquiring a lot of SaaS and PaaS properties that were born on the Internet. They have actually acquired several dozen over the last five years, so they had a good idea of where it was all going.

SoftLayer is the lynchpin that brought a lot [of those acquired products] together.

How far ahead are you working in terms of a roadmap for delivering these next-generation products?

We will bring cognitive business intelligence to several different industries on the SoftLayer platform.

Lance Crosby,
CEO, IBM SoftLayer

Crosby: We are going to build 40 sites this year and then add to that in 2015 and 2016. We will continue to add to the PaaS platform as well as build and buy SaaS properties. The closest competitor today is Amazon -- that has the IaaS piece and a little bit of PaaS. But we are rolling out full SaaS solutions, so we will not only have ingredients to build almost anything, we will also have the professional consulting to build vertical solutions.

Have you talked to the research people at IBM about fast-tracking some of the more advanced cloud-based technologies for your division?

Crosby: Absolutely. For instance, we just did an announcement involving Watson, which was a product that grew up in research and that will launch on SoftLayer by the end of the year. We will bring cognitive business intelligence to several different industries on the SoftLayer platform. We will be adding some SDN [software-defined network]-type solutions toward the end of the year that also came straight out of research.

I heard IBM was shopping around its software-defined environmenttechnologies, so how committed are you to your SDE products?

Crosby: SDN and SDE will be critical in the long term. It comes down to our strategy [and] how are we going to implement it. We are not ready to tip our hand just yet.

SoftLayer has built our own SDN for several years. Partnering with IBM, we have the ability to do some breakout stuff. So those properties that we divest, we will look to find a market for them.

How is the integration of SoftLayer with IBM going from a corporate culture standpoint? Are you still in the getting-to-know-you stage?

Crosby: We are still a standalone unit, and we will be for some period of time. IBM understands the importance of SoftLayer, and that is why you haven't seen a full integration at this point. I have full support of the board, from Ginny [Rometty, IBM CEO] on down, to make this transition. …

What have you learned in talking to large IBM customers? How far away are most of them from implementing cloud technologies like this?

Crosby: All companies are moving to cloud whether they realize it or not. They could be using something like Salesforce that they didn't realize was cloud.

All the organizations I visited in the top 100 IBM accounts are at different stages of cloud implementations. I believe [cloud computing] is going to be the transformation of IT. It will have the same impact on their business as mainframes and client-server did -- a huge shift in the way they do things. …

You plan to sell IBM's strengths as a complete enterprise cloud provider to the C-level suite, where AWS tends to target lower levels of IT.

Crosby: I think that's right. That is how [SoftLayer] got started, too, with people who went rogue and brought us in on their own, and we ended up getting into the enterprise. We will continue to be that credit-card, self-service model, like Amazon, with IT departments. But really, we give the enterprise the ability to gain control over the cloud and define what the rule sets are and then allow the different divisions to consume everything they need.

For example, [IT departments] can let a marketing department have five bare-metal servers, five VMs [virtual machines], 10 templates and 10 firewall configurations, and they can pick which ones and build them.

How much interaction do you have with the [IBM] server hardware groups?

Crosby: A lot. I am like a kid in a candy store. … I am going around meeting all the groups in IBM and asking them, 'Well, here is the widget I want to be cloudified,' and they will go build it to work with SoftLayer.

You have the Power 8 chip coming in April with new features to better run cloud applications. Increasingly, people are transitioning over to Intel servers, but IBM just sold off its System x Intel-based servers. Does that concern you?

Crosby: We look at the Power series differentiating us from competitors. For example, we are deploying Watson on Power to do [business intelligence] and big data solutions for various industry segments. With the number of sockets on processors and amount of RAM [in Power servers], it is a performance improvement over x86 that can't be matched. We won't compete directly with the x86 for the same business because it makes no sense long-term.

Cloud-based analytics is a big play for IBM. Is it the killer app for cloud and big data?

Crosby: We are going after [analytics] with a multipronged approach. We just purchased Aspera, which allows us to do large-file transfers in a short period of time. This helps us get data sets to and from big data solutions fast.

If you look at Power, which does transactions fast, and then look at IBM's complete software set on big data analytics, that tells you what the data means and puts those pieces together. We are not just a Hadoop cluster running on virtual machines, which is what a lot of big data solutions are.

With its lower cost, is Analytics as a Servicehow IBM will get more people interested in cloud services?

Crosby: Yes. In fact, that is the future of Watson. We want to give business intelligence to all companies -- no matter what size or how much data they have. We want to give them access to understanding their business through the cognitive abilities of something like Watson. We will turn that into a service worldwide, and it will be available on-demand.

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Has IBM pinned too much on SoftLayer?
not a bet-the-farm investment