IBM's moves into cloud computing have been strategically brilliant because of the tremendous risks the cloud poses to the company's traditional server, software and services business.
"Cloud" means different things to different people and organizations. Google and Yahoo host all of their software and services on the Internet, making them Web-centric cloud players. Microsoft is pursuing its software-plus-services strategy, tying customers' desktop software to Web-based services.
Customers don't need a great deal of data center hardware to leverage Google, Yahoo and Microsoft cloud services, but IBM is a different bird. IBM has dabbled in the cloud in a careful way, offering software and hardware combinations that do not cannibalize its existing server and services businesses.
How did IBM get to this point and where is it going to go in the cloud?
Dennis Quan, chief technology officer of high-performance on-demand solutions at IBM, told eWEEK that IBM entered the cloud internally with its IBM Innovation Portal a few years ago, allowing the company's 355,000 users to access computer resources more quickly instead of having to buy physical hardware.
This approach allowed IBM to "incubate new innovations and let users give feedback" on them, Quan said. Some 20 percent of the projects created in the portal influenced IBM's products, allowing IBM to shift its cloud focus into the market.
In December 2006, IBM struck an agreement with Google on cloud computing, and in late 2007 it built out three cloud computing centers, leveraging IBM Tivoli management software and Google's MapReduce parallel computing model on 1,000 servers.
IBM lets students use this gear and the centers as their playgrounds for parallel computing. This appears altruistic on the surface, but it's ingenious. It means the future university students who embark on this program will be versed in use of IBM and Google gear instead of Microsoft Windows and Live.
IBM then announced Blue Cloud in November 2007, discussing ways it would commercialize these assets and turn them into hardware and software. This will require a lot of virtualization technology, and some customer rollouts are taking place in Ireland and in China.
To recap: IBM's cloud moves began internally, spread to universities and are now leaking their way into the mainstream in products such as the company's new iDataPlex.