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Big Blue Sees Clouds on the Horizon

IBM’s big cloud-computing plan starts with virtual desktops and software application testing.

Today, IBM launched a set of cloud-computing services offering, among other things, virtual desktops and an environment for testing applications. This strategy could compete with the likes of Amazon.com and Salesforce.com, although IBM’s approach puts a twist on the typical setup for cloud computing. Instead of offering generic storage and processing that can be used for whatever a customer needs, IBM’s cloud platform is designed to work for specific types of tasks that it thinks would be most useful to companies.

The standard sales pitch for cloud computing is usually that it allows businesses to run applications and store data in someone else’s data center, freeing the customer from having to worry about the particulars of managing hardware and software. The technology is flexible, meaning that businesses can quickly increase or reduce the amount of resources that they’re using.

Dennis Quan, director of development in IBM’s autonomic computing division, says that in many cases, the typical cloud-computing approach is too murky and complex. “We really need to have IT systems that are fit for purpose.” He says that IBM decided to start by offering its cloud-computing services for development and testing and for virtual desktops because these are both areas in which cloud computing yields a clear benefit.

Ordinarily, in order to test and develop an application, a company’s IT department has to get permission to access certain hardware and software resources, and then work to integrate with them. By using cloud computing, the department can access the necessary resources without the same fuss.

By providing employees with virtual desktops, IBM says that businesses can manage software updates and security policies more easily, and employees can access their data from any device.

IBM will offer several options for customers who want to use its Smart Business products. Their software can run on IBM’s public cloud; IBM can build a private cloud for the customer within an existing data center, or the customer can buy a packaged system with the necessary hardware and software built in. In each case, the customer gets the flexibility of cloud computing. For private clouds, however, the customer can avoid sending data over the Internet and can manage some aspects, such as security, in house.

Quan says that IBM is focusing on specific uses for cloud computing because “clients want to know how cloud computing can solve their business problems.” The company plans to roll out its cloud offerings in a series of products tailored to specific purposes. In every case, Quan says, the systems will come with a layer of management software designed to easily handle tasks such as security, updates, and assigning resources.

IBM’s services are designed to recognize that, in some cases, it might be better to use a cloud maintained by IBM, while in other cases, it might be better to set up cloud-computing technology within a company’s own data center. Whatever the situation, Quan says, one of the key lessons for cloud computing is to automate the process to a greater extent, so that it’s easy, for example, for customers to move between working within IBM’s public cloud and within their own private clouds.

Frank Gens, senior vice president and chief analyst at the market-research firm IDC, says that IBM is hoping to appeal to customers by making it simpler for them to get into cloud computing. So far, the adoption of cloud computing has been slow, he says, because the existing vendors have placed a heavy burden on companies, asking them to put together complicated architectures in order to connect the cloud to their existing services. “IBM’s kind of gotten it and said, ‘Okay, we have to put the pieces together,’” Gens says.

He says that in addition to providing simplified packaging for cloud services, it’s significant that IBM is making an effort to give customers a clear sense of how cloud services can be used. The specificity that IBM is offering should make it easier to sell reluctant CEOs on the cloud, he says.

The strategy that IBM is using also plays to its strengths as a company with a long history of working with corporations. Like other traditional IT companies, “they’re viewed as coming later to the cloud than Amazon and Salesforce.com, but the other side of the coin is they’re coming with these capabilities that have an appeal to corporate CIOs,” Gens says. “It’s not that they’re going to come in and take over the world, but it’s going to be a more interesting competition now.”

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