IBM SoftLayer, versus Amazon or versus Rackspace?

Near the beginning of July, IBM closed its acquisition of SoftLayer (which I discussed in a previous blog post). A little over three months have passed since then, and IBM has announced the addition of more than 1,500 customers, the elimination of SmartCloud Enterprise (SCE, IBM’s cloud IaaS offering), and went on the offensive against Amazon in an ad campaign (analyzed in my colleague Doug Toombs’s blog post). So what does this all mean for IBM’s prospects in cloud infrastructure?

IBM is unquestionably a strong brand with deep customer relationships — it exerts a magnetism for its customers that competitors like HP and Dell don’t come anywhere near to matching. Even with all of the weaknesses of the SCE offering, here at Gartner, we still saw customers choose the service simply because it was from IBM — even when the customers would openly acknowledge that they found the platform deficient and it didn’t really meet their needs.

In the months since the SoftLayer acquisition has closed, we’ve seen this “we use IBM for everything by preference” trend continue. It certainly helps immensely that SoftLayer is a more compelling solution than SCE, but customers continue to acknowledge that they don’t necessarily feel they’re buying the best solution or the best technology, but they are getting something that is good enough from a vendor that they trust. Moreover, they are getting it now; IBM has displayed astonishing agility and a level of aggression that I’ve never seen before. It’s impressive how quickly IBM has jump-started the pipeline this early into the acquisition, and IBM’s strengths in sales and marketing are giving SoftLayer inroads into a mid-market and enterprise customer base that it wasn’t able to target previously.

SoftLayer has always competed to some degree against AWS (philosophically, both companies have an intense focus on automation, and SoftLayer’s bare-metal architecture is optimal for certain types of use cases), and IBM SoftLayer will as well. In the IBM SoftLayer deals we’ve seen in the last couple of months, though, their competition isn’t really Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is often under consideration, but the real competitor is much more likely to be Rackspace — dedicated servers (possibly with a hybrid cloud model) and managed services.

IBM’s strategy is actually a distinctively different one from the other providers in the cloud infrastructure market. SoftLayer’s business is overwhelmingly dedicated hosting — mostly small-business customers with one or two bare-metal servers (a cost-sensitive, high-churn business), though they had some customers with large numbers of bare-metal servers (gaming, consumer-facing websites, and so forth). It also offers cloud IaaS, called CloudLayer, with by-and-hour VMs and small bare-metal servers, but this is a relatively small business (AWS has individual customers that are bigger than the entirety of CloudLayer). SoftLayer’s intellectual property is focused on being really, really good at quickly provisioning hardware in a fully automated way.

IBM has decided to do something highly unusual — to capitalize on SoftLayer’s bare-metal strengths, and to strongly downplay virtualization and the role of the cloud management platform (CMP). If you want a CMP — OpenStack, CloudStack, vCloud Director, etc. — on SoftLayer, there’s an easy way to install the software on bare metal. But if you want it updated, maintained, etc., you’ll either have to do it yourself, or you need to contract with IBM for managed services. If you do that, you’re not buying cloud IaaS; you’re renting hardware and CMP software, and building your own private cloud.

While IBM intends to expand the configuration options available in CloudLayer (and thus the number of hardware options available by the hour rather than by the month), their focus is upon the lower-level infrastructure constructs. This also means that they intend to remain neutral in the CMP wars. IBM’s outsourcing practice has historically been pretty happy to support whatever software you use, and the same largerly applies here — they’re offering managed services for the common CMPs, in whatever way you choose to configure them.

In other words, while IBM intends to continue its effort to incorporate OpenStack as a provisioning manager in its “Smarter Infrastructure” products (the division formerly known as Tivoli), they are not launching an OpenStack-based cloud IaaS, replacing the existing CloudLayer cloud IaaS platform, or the like.

IBM also intends to use SoftLayer as the underlying hardware platform for the application infrastructure components that will be in its Cloud Foundry-based framework for PaaS. It will depend on these components to compete against the higher-level constructs in the market (like Amazon’s RDS database-as-a-service).

IBM SoftLayer has a strong value proposition for certain use cases, but today their distinctive value proposition is a different one than AWS’s, but a very similar one to Rackspace’s (although I think Rackspace is going to embrace DevOps-centric managed services, while IBM seems more traditional in its approach). But IBM SoftLayer is still an infrastructure-centric story. I don’t know that they’re going to compete with the vision and speed of execution currently being displayed by AWS, Microsoft, and Google, but ultimately, those providers may not be IBM SoftLayer’s primary competitors.

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Posted on November 12, 2013, in Infrastructure and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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