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After nearly two years of attempting to redefine “cloud” to mean “the hodgepodge of services IBM has cobbled together,” IBM this week put forward a clear and respectable vision of a viable software-defined data center that organizations can actually, finally put to use.

“It all is going to come down to digitization,” said Don Rippert, IBM's general manager for cloud services strategy during a keynote session Monday at IBM’s InterConnect 2015 conference in Las Vegas.

He was referring to the IBM philosophy put forth in October 2013 in a report entitled, “The Customer-Activated Enterprise.” The report explains that modern customer experiences are only feasible by engaging customers on a digital level.

“You’ve heard it over and over again,” said Rippert. “We’re going to keep saying it until you guys demand we stop saying it or until you believe it — I don’t know which. The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

IBM’s Surge from Behind

Rippert’s impromptu remark may be an indication of how frustrating it must feel for a company that may very well have pioneered the computing concept that we now call “the cloud” (IBM’s engineers had dubbed it “the grid”) to be perceived as playing catch-up. While many of the services introduced at InterConnect this week are incremental improvements on existing concepts, IBM is portraying some of them as outright inventions.

One of these retroactive creations is Bluemix, which first exited beta last July. Bluemix’s unique value proposition has been a kind of apps-like ecosystem for selecting server-side development languages, middleware platforms, and intermediate services when building distributed applications. That ecosystem expedites the development and deployment of new applications on the Cloud Foundry platform.

Platforms, in this context, are systems for running applications on cloud-based servers. When a platform such as Cloud Foundry or Bluemix is offered to you “as-a-service” (PaaS), it’s with the idea that your development team can build an application, test it, deploy it and continually maintain it on the same third-party platform. While Cloud Foundry is an open standard stewarded by EMC spinoff company Pivotal, Bluemix is IBM’s value-add.

In fits and starts, the Bluemix beta has been implementing support for Docker, the system for wrapping applications in containers that contain all the components they need to run on any Linux server, especially through OpenStack, the open source system for hosting cloud platforms. Docker support is extremely important. It’s the difference between a platform that runs virtual machines — simulated servers with server operating systems that run their own processes — and one that runs readily deployable applications.

But deployable where? Since its acquisition of SoftLayer in 2013, IBM has been professing the virtues of hybrid cloud not as some kind of intermediate waypoint toward a full public cloud deployment, but rather as a permanent state of existence. Organizations of all types will want to run certain workloads on-premises, its executives stated at the time, partly for security reasons, but maybe also because not all corporate applications need to be customer-facing.

Back On-Message

On Monday, IBM announced that its Enterprise Container system — its Bluemix implementation of Docker — is now being extended to enable on-premise deployments. Put another way, the company’s technology capability is just now catching up with its own philosophy.

At an IBM press conference Monday evening, cloud platform services Vice President Damion Heredia told reporters Bluemix was originally launched to enable organizations to focus on writing and deploying their own code without worrying about back-end infrastructure. But that strategy left some obvious gaps, he acknowledged, one of which is being filled this week by a critical Bluemix service called Secure Passport Gateway.

Depending on how your cloud is hybridized, SPG either enables on-premise applications to access cloud-based data securely, or off-premise applications to access company-hosted data stores securely. Heredia explained it as the latter, particularly as the key to enabling businesses to deploy cloud-based applications without having to migrate their data to the cloud wholesale.

It’s the kind of hybrid deployment at which Cloud Foundry already excelled, though which IBM is finally embracing.

“That is very central to our enterprise customers,” said Heredia, “because there are not many apps you will build in an enterprise that don’t need some piece of information back in the enterprise — customer record, loyalty information, pricing, product information. You need to be able to pull it out and bring it in.”

It is in this department that IBM will find itself competing against data integration firms such as Informatica, for whose customers this feature has been central since 1993.

Right Kind of Hybridization

IDC program director for software development research Al Hilwa, who attended Monday’s InterConnect sessions, came away feeling IBM’s refined cloud strategy is “on the money.”

“It leverages the great interest in private and hybrid clouds it [IBM] is seeing among their customers,” said Hilwa in an email exchange with CMSWire. He added that helping customers adapt to cloud services using technologies they’re already embracing outside of IBM — such as Cloud Foundry, OpenStack, and Docker — could make its appeal to those customers more effective. He continued:

Many [customers] are trying to leverage containerization to make their existing workloads more suitable for modern, Agile application development processes, and better portability between public and private clouds. IBM is trying to provide management and integration across public and private cloud in as seamless a way as possible, which is appropriate for the evolution of the large organizations that form IBM’s traditional base.”

“The days are kinda gone,” said IBM’s Don Rippert on Monday, “where somebody sits in a castle in a fantasy-land place like Armonk, New York (home of IBM headquarters), and tells everybody in the front line what to do and how to do it. What we want instead is [for] people on the front line to have access to data and analytics capabilities, so that they can make the decisions closer to the customer."

The people on the front line evidently want this too. As IBM responds to this and other customer demands in this world of digitization, it may yet come to realize just who is beating whom.

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