Big Blue shares cloudy thinking with developers+dog

Get your apps in the sky on the net

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If there was an index for how many times a vendor hops onto a new buzzword and tried to slap it on every product in their catalog, then it is probably safe to say that IBM would be the most actively traded stock on the Cloud Computing Exchange.

Today, as part of its ongoing effort to explain what cloud computing is and why we need it, Big Blue launched a set of services to help application software developers get with the (marketing) program and figure out how to make their software cloudy. Presumably, these will allow all those dev types to sell their wares to customers with diminishing IT budgets.

The launch of the cloud services initiative (capped in the IBM release, but not here at El Reg) includes of a bunch of cloud services (what you and I might call software running on someone else's computer and accessed through the Internet). Plus there's a set of "real" services to help software houses figure out how to design, build, deliver, and sell cloudy variants of software packages that run on their own IT infrastructure or iron owned by IBM or one of its hosting partners. Both are hoping to get rich (ok, pay the bills) on this cloud computing thing.

As much as we all might want the term cloud computing to be shot dead and dragged into the woods, the stupid term is probably going to stick around despite the efforts of sensible people who might prefer to call it something else. Like utility computing. One man's cloud is another man's data center - quite literally in this case - which is one reason why the term is so irritating. Reminds me of Web 2.0.

So, it is only natural - if you consider marketing to be a natural act - that as software and its underlying IT infrastructure changes to enable more sophisticated distributed computing techniques, someone would try to coin a phrase for a new concept that is as old as the service bureau from before I was born. Anyway, IBM says it has over $100 million in a three-year initiative and a team of more than 200 researchers dedicated to cloud computing.

According to Dave Mitchell, director of IBM's developer relationships, IBM is taking a four-pronged approach to cloud computing. Three would be devilish. Five would be pushing the limits of human attention.

You will recall, of course, that IBM has spent beaucoup d'argent to set up its "Blue Cloud" data centers in specific countries, where it hopes to host cloudy application on behalf of companies in specific regions. In July, IBM rolled out a $360 million center in Research Triangle Park and plunked another one down in Tokyo, Japan, to which it will be linked. That brings IBM to 13 cloud computing centers worldwide - and 40 innovation centers where ISVs can come in and figure out how to use IBM tools to port their code to various operating systems and middleware or, in this case, how to make them hostable on cloud-style infrastructure.

That's the first prong. Helping customers integrate their own applications with SaaS-style software and some very similar thing now called cloud services is a second prong. Today's announcement is the other two prongs: helping ISVs get their apps cloudy and IBM getting its own software implemented as cloud services.

To which, IBM announced that it has opened up the beta for a set of social networking and collaboration software for businesses. They're code-named "Bluehouse," and they were created by its Lotus groupware division. The Bluehouse software has been in a closed beta since early this year and is expected to come to market some time around early next year - probably in time for the annual Lotusphere shindig at the end of January.

You can try the open beta of this software, er, cloud service at this link. Other programs that IBM is peddling under the SaaS model include Sametime Unyte, a Lotus conferencing tool, and Web application security and policy compliance scanning tools that are branded with its Rational development tool brand.

If you think that a bad economy might push more companies into adopting SaaS-style applications - the jury is still out on that idea as far as I am concerned - the interesting bit is that Mitchell says IBM added 100 partners to its SaaS specialty program so far in 2008. The number stood at 130 at the end of 2007, and the effort is not even two years old.

To be a member of the SaaS program, IBM requires customers to do two out of three of the following things: use IBM middleware, use IBM hardware, or use hosting from a qualified partner (including IBM's own hosting centers). Of the first 130, the majority chose IBM hardware and hosting to qualify, but with the second 100, nearly all of them are instead using IBM's middleware and hardware and then setting up their own utilities to service their customers.

"Startup ISVs are embracing this model very aggressively," explains Mitchell. "They can be more innovative with the SaaS approach and make updates very rapidly - almost using their initial customers to test their code."

Rapid revs on software makes sense, but customers trying to get work done don't like to be guinea pigs, and they like downtime even less. Any ISV that keeps jerking around its code and its customers too much will find out something else: the barrier to exit on cloudy SaaS apps will be approaching zero as more players enter the market, and customers will be happy to log off and go elsewhere. ®

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