IBM Makes Large Cloud-Computing Investment

Cloud computing isn't just a flash in the pan, advocates argue: it's game-changing.

If you're tempted to dismiss cloud computing as just another spin on massively distributed or utility computing or as a fancy kind of grid, think again. According to proponents, cloud computing -- admittedly evolved from grid and other experiments in dense and computationally efficient computing -- is a disruptive technology that's going to stick around.

IBM Corp. late last week touted the construction of two additional cloud-computing data centers -- an investment of $360 million -- which let it address what officials call "surging" demand for cloud-computing resources. IBM says cloud computing is game-changing. Unlike its largely technological predecessors, computing-on-the-cloud has a few highly topical issues -- such as virtualization, Web 2.0, and a growing focus on reducing data center power consumption -- in its favor.

Big Blue has already built cloud compute centers in Dublin, Ireland, Beijing and Wixu, China, and in South Africa, as well as in the U.S., so the latest cloud facilities -- based in Tokyo and North Carolina's Research Triangle Park (RTP) --prove that IBM is serious, officials argue.

"We're launching two additional cloud computing centers, and one of them is going to be an extremely large cloud computing center, the largest that we've launched to date," says Dennis Quann, director of development in IBM's Autonomic Computing division. "[Both new facilities are] examples of how we're investing hundreds of millions of dollars to create extremely efficient data centers, based on cloud technologies and our enterprise architecture, which we've instantiated in other cloud-computing efforts."

Why does IBM conceive of cloud as such a safe bet? Quann says the use cases are already there: internally, for example, IBM taps cloud computing to help spur its development efforts. Today, internal IBM groups deploy applications or services on a cloud, which acts as a sandbox in which to both test and isolate them from Big Blue's mission-critical application ecosystem.

In addition, cloud computing gives users new and to date undreamed of flexibility when it comes to creating a proof of concept (POC): internal groups can quickly bring up prospective projects or services on top of cloud resources and interact with them via a unified portal. Other vendors have trumpeted the merits of cloud computing as a quick-and-dirty POC accelerator (see

"From a consumer perspective, looking at it from the different use cases that are coming about, you see the growth of these huge Web 2.0 applications out there, as well as the emergence of a huge mobile user base. These [applications] require large amounts of compute resources just to handle the number of users, because with the Web 2.0 phenomenon, people are actually contributing content back to these sites," he points out.

Web 2.0 has enterprise ramifications as well, according to Quann. "It's not to say that everybody is going to be exactly like YouTube, but even [with] a bank, [a user consuming your service] could be a person standing on the side of the street hitting the refresh button on their stock ticker or account balance or whatever," he argues. "That's going to create huge demand on the systems that are running these applications, so it isn't just about back-end data processing. We want to talk about supporting lots of different types of workloads -- both user-based workloads and back-end-based workloads."

Cloud Computing in the Enterprise

More than any other driver, however, Quann cites the push to reduce data center power consumption, which uniquely plays to cloud computing's strength.

It is also the most enterprise-ready flavor of cloud: in most cases, enterprises should be able to replicate on their own (that is, in their own internal data centers) what IBM achieves in its cloud compute centers, typically by using a combination of virtualization technology and management tooling. Big Blue even touts a do-it-yourself cloud architecture -- what it calls the New Enterprise Data Center (NEDC) -- based on best practices and technology prescriptions it developed as part of its own cloud computing efforts.

"The thing that's really compelling about the cloud model, [when it's used] either internally or externally, is that there are levels of efficiency that one is able to get that you just can't get [with conventional data centers]. Over time, even internal data centers will migrate more and more to a cloud approach, where they adopt cloud principles [such as virtualization]," he argues. "The software in these cloud data centers is composed of a number of our Tivoli products, [including] a request-driven provisioning product. We also use a lot of Xen, but we're able to use [other virtualization technologies such as] VMWare, too," Quann points out.

This is not to say that enterprises will abandon internal data centers -- just that the internal data center will itself become a cloud-computing facility. "Customers aren't going to be ripping out data centers and replacing them with cloud centers overnight. This is going to be a gradual process," he argues. "It's going to be a hybrid model, with [both] internal and external clouds."

IBM isn't the only player talking up cloud computing's enterprise benefits. Recently, industry-watcher Gartner Inc. touted computing-on-the-cloud as a "disruptive" model on par with -- and potentially far more transformative than -- the e-business craze of the late-1990's (see

Ultimately, Gartner suggests, cloud computing -- which vendors such as IBM are struggling to market to enterprise IT organizations -- will have an undeniable business impact, inasmuch as it "create[s] a new opportunity to shape the relationship between those who use IT services and those who sell them."

Those with hands-on IT experience are also warming up to cloud computing. Next week's SHARE conference in San Jose, for example, will offer attendees crash courses in cloud computing and its potential enterprise applicability.

Right now, SHARE principals say, most IT shops are trying to wrap their heads around cloud -- much like they were trying to get up to speed on SOA half a decade ago. Over time, predicts SHARE vice-president Pam Taylor, cloud computing will gain traction in the enterprise.

"Obviously, there are the early adopters, [who] are out there playing with it right now, but most of the world is trying to figure out what to do with it, what it means, what the value to them is going to be," says Taylor, a solutions architect with a Fortune 500 company.

"[At SHARE], we're trying to introduce the technology, the options, get people into that planning phase, get them better able to understand what it is they're talking about."

Right now, Taylor says, most shops are thinking of cloud computing as a strictly internal enterprise play -- what she calls "cloud within the four walls." That could change over time. "The idea of bigger clouds that transcend an individual organization's boundaries and kind of go to this notion of true utility computing is probably still a little further out," she concludes.

"Right now we're trying to bring the discussion into the SHARE audience, start to expose people to what it's all about, get them prepared for when the CIOs says, 'I want my own cloud' because [she] read about it in an airline magazine or something like that."

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