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IBM's cloud strategy homes in on developers

To boost its profile in IaaS, IBM's cloud strategy has shifted focus from CIOs to developers. Whether the multipronged appeal to developers will pan out remains an open question.

SAN FRANCISCO -- IBM has long been a top choice for CIOs for back-end data infrastructure. The IT provider, however,...

lags competitors like Amazon, Microsoft and Google in attracting the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) customers needed to make it a top choice in an era dominated by cloud.

In order to bridge this gap, IBM has taken a number of steps, including the appointment of Robert Lord as the company's first chief digital officer in 2016 and charging him with engaging IaaS developers.

SearchCIO caught up with Lord at the recent Index Conference, an IBM-sponsored event where the company's full court press for developers was on display.

"IBM has always had a large sales force focused on selling IBM's custom development services to CIOs. But the world has changed. Now 95% of IT decisions are influenced by developers," Lord said. "We can no longer just focus on CIOs, we have to go to developers." A big part of his job today, he added, is making sure IBM's cloud services are available to developers in a self-service manner -- and that developers are aware of IBM's cloud capabilities in AI, blockchain and other emerging tech.  

As part of its push to woo developers, IBM has developed what it calls "code patterns," which are like design patterns for getting developers up and running in a couple of minutes. The company is also supporting open source developer community events like the one in San Francisco around the world. In addition, IBM is forging partnerships with vendors that have large developer communities.

Whether this shift in IBM's cloud strategy is enough to boost IBM's negligible share of the roughly $22 billion IaaS market, however, remains an open question.

Building on Big Blue's strength

Charles King, principal analyst, Pund-ITCharles King

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said IBM's cloud strategy has already demonstrated leadership in one aspect of enterprise computing. IBM's key value proposition lies in helping companies bring more of their legacy infrastructure to the cloud, while providing the same kinds of governance risk compliance (GRC) and security safeguards trusted by CIOs. This can lower the barriers to building out the hybrid clouds that span publicly available services and existing enterprise apps. A secure hybrid cloud helps enterprises operationalize data locked behind firewalls, maximizing the value of cloud while mitigating some of the risk.

"IBM saw early on that IT customers, especially large enterprises, were taking a far more measured approach that emphasized incorporating multiple cloud services with existing IT assets, many of which will never fully migrate to public clouds," King said.

This "long game" approach, combined with IBM's outreach to enterprise developers, will make IBM a vital cloud player, in King's view.

Attracting developers

The initiative around code patterns promises to make it easier for developers to get started with prebuilt, preconfigured modules for cloud functionality. "IBM's code patterns are like design patterns for the cloud. These are focused on accelerating time to value; it is not just about code," said Angel Diaz, vice president of cloud technology and architecture at IBM, who was one of many top IBM cloud experts at the Index event. "

But the world has changed. Now 95% of IT decisions are influenced by developers. We can no longer just focus on CIOs, we have to go to developers.
Robert Lordchief digital officer, IBM

The code patterns make it possible for developers to begin experimenting with new technologies like AI, blockchain, and transactions in a couple of minutes, he said. Once developers find success with a new concept, they can quickly ramp it up on top of IBM's infrastructure.

Among the vendor partnerships IBM has forged to grow its developer community is with Lightbend, which provides tools for developing event-driven applications using a Play Framework for microservices, a middleware platform called Akka, and using the Scala programming language. The architecture makes it easier for developers to work with reactive programming techniques, Diaz said. A new partnership, announced at the event, is with Unity Technologies SF, a video game developer, whose technology will make it easier for virtual reality or augmented reality developers to hop on the IBM cloud to create enterprise-grade apps for training workflow.

IBM is currently bringing its Watson capabilities to Unity games to allow developers to add natural language understanding and speech synthesis capabilities. Michael Ludden, director of product at IBM Watson Developer Labs, said: "Going forward IBM's vision is to build an enterprise-grade content pipeline that could allow enterprises to create VR and AR apps with enterprise-grade security and resiliency."

IBM's cloud strategy needs more than a CDO

Still, some analysts believe that IBM has a lot of catching up to do to lure an army of developers who are more comfortable with AWS or Microsoft Azure.

Roger Kay, senior analyst at Endpoint Technologies AssociatesRoger Kay

"IBM is not geared to sell commodity cloud access the way Amazon and Microsoft are. Extending down market will be a challenge, as that segment is already well served by x86 platform suppliers," said Roger Kay, senior analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, referring to IBM's focus on mainframe hardware rather than the Intel and AMD PCs deployed on other cloud services.

Others believe that IBM's cloud strategy will have to involve more than a chief digital officer to build its cloud branding. The foundation of IBM's IaaS offering is SoftLayer, the public cloud provider it acquired in 2013, but the leadership team is helmed by Lord, whose background is in marketing. By contrast, Microsoft Azure is led by the company's top cloud executive, and company-within-company AWS functions more like the engine of its parent, which has a like-minded interest in exploiting cloud.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst, Enderle GroupRob Enderle

Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group, said, "This allows both AWS and Microsoft to be more focused on the cloud, while IBM's top executive leadership lacks similar experience and background," adding that IBM is also a very different kind of company. "It uses more of an umbrella model. This allows them to have greater diversity of product, but it does reduce their focus."

One strategy would be to move SoftLayer executives up to leadership positions, taking a page from Microsoft's approach, while another would be to give SoftLayer more autonomy like an AWS. "Either would likely allow IBM to focus more sharply on this opportunity and improve execution," Enderle said.

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