IBM joins the IaaS fray



IBM recently announced that its public Smart Business Development and Test on the IBM Cloud (SBDT), beta launched in early 2010, has turned into two infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offerings for production environments: SmartCloud Enterprise (SCE) available on a self-service basis and managed SmartCloud Enterprise+ (SCE+). These are positive steps forward, if a little late and constrained (when it comes to the initial on-boarding process).

SCE: fairly simple and standard IaaS offering

SCE turns SBDT into a generic IaaS cloud. IBM claims, and rightly so, that enterprises are ready to move from experimenting with IaaS to running (non-core) production systems on IaaS clouds such as SCE. Some have already done so, without waiting for SBDT to become more generic. To support them, SCE offers more security and improved service levels compared to SBDT, for example.

At a time when IBM is often accused of private cloud bias, SCE is a step in the right direction, offering a more balanced approach to cloud computing. It is a fairly standard and simple IaaS offering that supports (Red Hat and Novell) Linux and Windows virtual machine (VM) images running on nine VM instance types (Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold in 32- and 64-bit configurations with an extra 64-bit Platinum option) each with predefined CPU, RAM, and storage resources. Additional persistent storage and virtual private network (VPN) options are available for an extra fee.

Developers have access to a rather limited catalog of mostly IBM software images in a variety of areas from databases to collaboration software. We expect this catalog to grow and hope to see it turn into a fully fledged marketplace.

As well as complimentary technical support available via online forum pages through the SCE Web portal, enterprises can choose to pay extra for Premium and Advanced Premium support options as well as on-boarding services. With the exception of the on-boarding services, these are not particularly different from the recently expanded (January 2011) support services that Amazon Web Services offers.

SCE: late and constrained when it comes to the initial provisioning process

Compared to some of its competitors, IBM is late to the IaaS party. More importantly, SCE’s initial one-time on-boarding process is too long and complicated. Instead of just logging in and providing credit card details, users have to allow ‘at least two weeks for order processing’ (IBM asserts that it is currently tracking at a few days only). Once the customer is signed up and has access to the portal, provisioning VMs is a lot quicker. This initial set-up time will put off part of the market, but it may not be too onerous for the many enterprises that have long-winded procurement processes in place.

The online provisioning form is also only available in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy, with Japan coming soon. In other regions the advice is to ‘contact your local sales representative’. This is often IBM’s euphemism for a product or service not yet available in a region. However, this is not the case for SCE, which IBM claims to be available worldwide. Last but not least, IBM should also disclose the terms of its SLAs upfront, instead of providing access to them well into the provisioning process. These terms are fairly standard for IaaS, which mean they provide for very limited compensation in cases of SLAs not being met.

From SCE to SCE+: the challenge of mixing traditional services with public cloud services

While SCE targets greenfield and non-core applications, SCE+ is about migrating ‘traditional and higher availability’ applications to either on-premise private clouds or virtual private clouds on an IBM Datacenter, hence better security credentials and SLA terms than SCE. SCE+ also includes extra managed services options. The challenge for IBM is to provide flexible ways for its customer to mix and match traditional managed services with SCE+ as well as SCE in a way that is transparent and flexible. This is a challenge that many of IBM’s competitors have a head start in tackling (e.g. Rackspace), without necessarily reaching the right balance, or integration between services, yet. The portals for SCE and SCE+ will become one this year. Right now SCE+ is slightly ahead of SCE in portal functionality.

Integration between services is not only done at the technology/portal level but also in business terms and pricing. From that angle, SCE and SCE+ are very different. SCE, like many other IaaS clouds, offers hourly usage-based pricing with lower-priced reserved options. IBM has published standard rate prices (a first) for the service and its options. These look competitive with AWS but not overly so: extras quickly add up (but those – North American enterprises only – who sign up now pay nothing until June 10, 2011). SCE+, on the other hand, is available either on a monthly usage basis or via a fixed contract.

SCE+ breaks with the past at a variety of levels

Planned for release in the second half of 2011, SCE+ supports a wider range of CPU types (it is the first IBM public cloud offering that supports Power servers, not just x86) and operating systems (AIX – not just Linux and Windows) than SCE. Both Power servers and AIX have their own approaches to virtualization in addition to KVM that both SCE and SCE+ (as well as SBDT) support. IBM is likely to support more hypervisor technologies. We also expect support for System-z mainframes and System-i servers to follow.



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