This is a saga about IBM’s Bluemix Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), Big Blue’s popular Cloud Foundry-based cloud application development program that started as a glimmer in a few IBM executives’ cloud-glazed eyes and now boasts more than one million developers and attracts nearly 20,000 new ones to the platform each week, IBM said.
According to Dr. Angel Luis Diaz, IBM’s vice president of Cloud Architecture and Technology, IBM initially began looking into what was to become Bluemix as far back as 2010, four years before the company officially launched it at its Pulse conference in February of 2014. When asked about the origins of the technology, Diaz waxed reminiscent, simply saying: “It’s a beautiful story.”
To Diaz, the beauty comes from both the purely developer focus involved in the planning and execution of the strategy, and the adherence to openness and open technology all along the process.
Bluemix itself came out of a concept within IBM known as “social coding,” Diaz said.
“We started the transformation in how we develop many years ago and Bluemix grew out of something called social coding internally,” Diaz told eWEEK. “It was an organic project, so myself, Jerry Cuomo, now vice president of Blockchain Technologies at IBM, David Linquist, now an IBM Fellow and CTO of Cloud Platform Services at IBM and a bunch of us got together and said ‘let’s start creating a polyglot platform and a cloud operating environment.’ ”
This was back around 2010 or so and IBM was already working with OpenStack and trying to create a foundation around that, Diaz said. The company also had some internal technology doing Platform- as- a- Service. In fact, Jerry Cuomo had done quite a bit of that work with IBM’s PureApplication server, he recalled.
“But we asked how can we create a true open-source Platform- as- a- Service,” Diaz said. “So as we were looking at the different communities and looking at our own stuff, we said you know the best way to do this is to partner with the community – bring our IP to the community and open it up.”
Indeed, IBM had more than one PaaS-like prototype underway internally, as is typical for a large organization with multiple projects going on. But it wasn’t exactly the same idea of a true polyglot environment that Diaz and company sought.
“It was a way of provisioning and laying down a platform, but it wasn’t dynamic like Cloud Foundry is,” he said. “It had some very good principles that we use now in Cloud Foundry but it didn’t have everything we wanted. Nobody did. So the idea was to marry the best. And Danny Sabbah (now retired former cloud CTO at IBM) was at the top of all this.”
So IBM started a broader experiment and built it out. It started with a ragtag team of some of Diaz’s group in Silicon Valley–he had been tasked with splitting his time between the valley and IBM’s Software Group facilities in Somers, NY–doing the back end work and some of IBM Fellow Rod Smith’s team doing the UI work with IBM’s design thinking team. They took Cloud Foundry as the base and partnered with Pivotal. At that point they began talking about creating the Cloud Foundry Foundation because they believed if they were going to use open source technology, it needed to be openly governed.
“And then what happened was we ended up creating what we called a cloud operating environment,” Diaz said. “It wasn’t called Bluemix yet, but it gave people the ability to quickly build applications, which started as a small part-time thing with five to 15 people that literally grew into thousands of developers coding on their own time, building Bluemix. This is all organic and it’s because of social coding. We had structured the way we were building this. It started from these little pieces. Social coding occurred and, literally, we ran a hackathon and we had 1,000 IBMers show up at the same time to build apps on Bluemix.” That’s when they knew they had something special on their hands.
Social Coding: The Origins of IBM’s Bluemix
The Bluemix Garage Method
Meanwhile, social coding eventually became what is now called the Bluemix Garage Method. Not long after releasing Bluemix in 2014, IBM introduced its first Bluemix Garage in San Francisco in April of that year. A Bluemix Garage is a physical location where developers and designers can collaborate with IBM experts to create and deliver new cloud apps deployed on Bluemix.
“The Garage Method is how we develop code — like we broke our teams into squads,” Diaz said. “We do pair programming, we have the ability to make pull requests on each other, and we perfected our social coding. The ‘how’ is very important and it’s very important to the history of Bluemix. This method that we call the IBM Bluemix Garage Method has a tagline that says: Act like a startup, deliver at enterprise scale. It combines the best practices of design thinking, lean startup, agile development, DevOps and cloud to build innovative solutions. And clients love this because they want to know how they can do it. It’s great for retention and for attracting talent because everyone wants to work this way.”
Rachel Reinitz, an IBM distinguished engineer and CTO of the IBM Bluemix Garage, took us a little deeper into the process.
“We have a core set of practices and a very disciplined Agile approach, married with the design thinking of a startup,” she said in an interview. “When we work with enterprise customers there are elements of the Agile world that we adopt. We do a form of extreme programming where you don’t design a test. You design and you code for the story in front of you. So you cross multi-speed IT and you design for that. It often pushes on the culture of the enterprise customers and they want that. They want us to help show them how it can be done. When we work with enterprise customers there are elements of a pure Agile process that we augment. For example, in a pure Agile world and we do a form of extreme programming, you don’t design ahead, you design and code for the stories you have in front of you. But if the app you’re building needs to tie into backend systems, you need to do some of that analysis up front. Because you need to align what you’re doing on the fast-speed innovation side with the changes you need on the slower-speed existing organization. So that’s where you cross into multi-speed IT. So you have to adapt for that. Those are the kinds of things we do with enterprise customers. So it’s not a tunnel vision around Agile. It’s more like let’s make this work for the applications and the culture and environment you’re in.”
However, before the garages came to fruition and before Bluemix even had an official name or a unit in place to run it, IBM took the technology through a limited beta release to see what people thought.
“And the uptake was unbelievable – we had a bunch of clients who wanted to use this capability,” Diaz said. “The experiment worked. Social coding delivered success. We put Steve Robinson, general manager of cloud platform services in place to build the team. So that was how Bluemix came to be. It was an IBM development methodology social coding practice. It started out small. It was organic; it was built internally.”
No Pressure to Join the PaaS Race, But to Help Clients
Ironically, the effort began prior to the PaaS craze taking off, Diaz said.
The Bluemix concept originally came from a project to improve how IBM could help developers in enterprises and SMBs build applications in the cloud faster, said Damion Heredia, IBM’s vice president for Cloud Platform Services.
“When we looked at people trying to build their first cloud app, they were spending a majority of their time setting up infrastructure,” he said. “And a good portion after that was spent on maintaining the infrastructure. So provisioning VMs, cache and storage, locking down security, standing the network, setting up the tests to make sure it all works. By the time they were done with that then they get to focus on writing their code for the app. That was great for development, but when they got into production, then it was another deal on how do I move this development environment over to production and maintain and run it. Developers were spending too much time on the plumbing and not enough time on the business of writing code.” Enter Bluemix.
Diaz says he believes what makes Bluemix so attractive to developers and to enterprises are three things: choice, the “candy store” and the methodology.
Social Coding: The Origins of IBM’s Bluemix
“Bluemix gives you choice with consistency,” he said. “You build your application and you can run it on-premise, you can run it off premise so you do hybrid in a consistent way. So all of a sudden we have reduced the cost of what you need to do. You don’t have to worry about the infrastructure, you can get your containers, and you can get your application set up like that. The second is the candy store,” he said, referring to the Bluemix catalog of more than 140 tools and services spanning categories of big data, mobile, Watson, analytics, integration, DevOps, security and the Internet of things (IoT).
“If you’re a developer, when you walk in, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got all this stuff and I don’t know where to start right now,’” Diaz said. “It’s like why are you going to write voice recognition software or emotion detection software on a piece of English. You’ve got that from Watson. That propels you months ahead in development. And the third thing is the methodology. This is the important part. It’s the ability to take what you’ve got and scale out how you build it. You can use the DevOps tool chain.”
In an interview with eWEEK from 2014 not long after the launch of Bluemix, Steve Mills, who is now retired, but was formerly IBM’s executive vice president of software and systems, said: “Enterprises care a lot about hybrid. They want to integrate front end to back end–‘I want to put this out in the cloud, but I want to move data back and forth.’ And delivering those integration mechanisms and APIs is going to be the key differentiator for Bluemix. Allowing customers to create their own private workspaces where they have their components and things they want to put into the environment, again, is something I think we can excel in. Because we do understand the enterprise.”
IoT and Watson
With that in mind, Heredia said the two biggest draws for people coming to Bluemix are compute and storage–database and memory. “They are the bread and butter. Then IoT and Watson and mobile are definitely the bulk of the usage that is not runtime and data,” he said.
Cerebri AI, a Watson University Competition winner, is working with United Way for Greater Austin to help streamline the delivery of social services information across mobile platforms, ensuring crucial information is available when and where it is needed, especially for citizens without home Internet service. Cerebri gathers information on IBM Cloud about an app’s users, then Watson understands what the user is looking for, and uses the Tradeoff Analytics API to come up with a list of services that will most benefit the user.
“We began using Watson APIs to help people find the social services that they were looking for,” said Ryan Lund, co-founder and CEO of Cerebri AI. Through the course of the last year we focused on some of the Bluemix services. We’re using trade-off analytics from Bluemix. We’re also using others and we will be using more in the future. The variety and quality of technologies stood out and their ability to integrate it all together so that developers could use them. The proof is in the pudding. We started out with one API and we moved on to use others. It’s been extremely easy to work with. Without Bluemix we would be in a rough situation. Bluemix is really the core of the technology that we have because of the access to the APIs. I don’t know if a day goes by that one of our developers doesn’t touch something that is impacted by Bluemix. We were introduced to Bluemix from our relationship with Watson.”
Birth of the Bluemix Garage
Meanwhile, for IBM’s part, Reinitz told eWEEK the idea for Bluemix Garages was born during a meeting between herself and Steve Robinson as they were thinking about how to engage with clients and show them that Bluemix was a key platform for building engaging applications. The desire to help clients innovate in a new way and take themselves out of their own environments was part of it, she said.
However, another part of it was some cogent input from Jim Deters, CEO and co-founder of Galvanize, whose San Francisco campus houses IBM’s first Bluemix Garage, Reinitz said. “We asked him how can we be authentic and how could we be taken seriously [by the startup community] and he said you should be part of it,” she said. “So for us to be a platform for developers of all different kinds of backgrounds, including startups and millennial developers, it made a lot of sense. And we said let’s try it.”
Social Coding: The Origins of IBM’s Bluemix
So, in essence, IBM set up a consulting practice that began helping its clients rapidly deliver innovative applications by applying the best practices IBM was seeing both in industry and using inside the company–including DevOps and focusing on the design side of things. Because IBM had been undergoing a design transformation for about three years, they also brought in lean thinking, business hypotheses and minimal viable product into the mix.
“We do a two-day design thinking workshop where we have the client come in with an idea or a concept of an idea or a problem and we come out with a set of hypotheses,” Reinitz said. “We have a fairly high success rate with that. Some clients come in with an app they want built and those tend to move fast. Those are quite easy. But a lot of clients come in and they want us to help them with innovation or help them with DevOps and that is like starting another project and they want us to help them with scale. Then there is a third category who are purchasing Bluemix as their platform–the dedicated Bluemix for example–and are now figuring what are the first apps I put on it, how do I make the most effective use, and from an IT perspective how do I engage lines of business to start to use it. So we help them align with LOBs and get things started.”
Are We Still at IBM?
The Bluemix Garages have a relaxed dress code – jeans and T-shirts are not uncommon – as well as a relaxed management structure where all ideas are considered. The casual approach causes some clients to literally ask if they are still at IBM, Reinitz said.
To work in such an environment requires not only a certain personality type, but also a particular background and outlook.
“In terms of the type of people we look for, we look for people with strong interpersonal skills who can adapt because we’re doing different projects all the time,” Reinitz said.
For instance, for designers the garages tend to go heavier on user experience (UX) designers, so they have UX designers, they have visual designers and a number of the designers have user research experience as well. For developers, Reinitz said she seeks to have a mix of experienced developers with varied experiences such as Agile development experience, experience within IBM, and even some consulting experience with knowledge of backend systems, security and enterprise applications. IBM also seeks a variety of more junior developers, she said.
“Having a mix is usually beneficial,” she said. “And across the garages we are about 50/50 of experienced developers versus junior ones. But some of our juniors are really talented. We like diversity of all kinds. The number one thing we hire for in new developers is the ability to pick up new technologies. I care much less if a person knows Ruby or Node, but more that they are able to pick up the new Active Deploy or whatever the new technology is and that they’re comfortable learning new things.”
IBM has Bluemix Garages in four physical locations today: San Francisco, London, Toronto, and Nice, France and the company is working on a location in Melbourne. Ironically, IBM’s first garage location–San Francisco–is where Microsoft is holding its annual Build developer conference this week. The irony lies in that Bluemix was in some ways aimed at Microsoft.
“I think part of the challenge here for enterprises is getting them to see Bluemix as a great place to go to do application prototyping and build applications,” Mills said in that early interview. “The importance of that initiative is to make it easy for people to build applications, provide a broad range of componentry, open tooling, an open environment with the kind of fit, finish and fidelity that I think they often attribute to Microsoft… When we came up with Bluemix I wasn’t staring at AWS. I was staring at Azure. Give Microsoft credit, they are very good at personal computing. They think a lot about the fidelity of the environment. Can you find your way to the things that you want? They’re very user sensitive in the way they come at these problems…”
Meanwhile, even though IBM has permanent garage locations in four cities, the company also has a “pop-up” capability, where its consultants will go into a city and do garage projects there. “We do that around the world. Any day of the week we have consultants anywhere around the world,” Reinitz said.
Overall, the Bluemix Garage mission is to make Bluemix successful, not so much to profit off of its specific services. To be sure, the garage unit does have revenue targets, but the larger goal is to have an impact on Bluemix and the overall IBM cloud.
“If I look at the deals for Bluemix, the garage significantly impacted a number of them,” Reinitz proclaimed.