IBM takes a flyer on the cloud

By Mark Everett Hall
June 15, 2009 10:53 AM EDT
According to legend, IBM led business IT users to accept the personal computer and Linux. Without Big Blue, the story goes, IT would have ignored both technologies. Now the Armonk, N.Y. tech giant wants to push IT into the cloud. Will its initiative fly?

Despite a flood of leaks today, including in the New York Times, IBM tomorrow will officially announce its Smart Business cloud programs. The first targets software development and test, where IBM claims a company "devotes 30 to 50 percent of its entire infrastructure...but typically up to 90 percent of it remains idle."

That's the market sought by Microsoft with its Azure service, Google through AppEngine, Engine Yard for Ruby on Rails fans as well as other established online development services. With IBM's prominent role in Eclipse, Websphere and other development tools in IT shops, it ought to have some suasion getting CIOs to offload app/dev infrastructure to IBM's cloud services.

However, once IBM leads IT executives outside their own data center for app/dev, they might start to look favorably on other services. After all, the primary motive for leaving your own data center is to access low-cost external resources. And I guarantee it, IBM's prices will not beat Azure or AppEngine.

Its other service being rolled out tomorrow is virtual desktop services. That is, IBM is putting its market muscle behind thin clients. But, instead of the servers running the virtual PCs being in a corporate data center, the servers are in an IBM cloud.

Look, I've been a proponent of thin clients for years. And, in my heart, I want this service to take off. But if IT managers have failed for more than a decade to replace expensive to buy and maintain PCs off desktops with low cost, high-performance and more secure thin clients, I do not believe IBM's support will nudge along acceptance of this logical capability much.

There is something visceral in the minds and hearts of people about having their own PCs. I doubt CIOs will spend much political capital fighting this battle for IBM.

So, in sum, IBM is offering two significant cloud-based services. The first is for a crowded market where pricing will fast become an issue; the second is for a noble, but losing battle for the desktop. I'm betting this time next year these services will not be making much news. Or much money.