IBM is the quintessential enterprise vendor of IT products and services. From the Mainframe to Smartcloud its offerings have always provided high-end technology for those companies fortunate enough to have pockets deep enough to afford them. This has made IBM into one of the world’s most profitable companies. However it also left openings in markets that companies such as Microsoft and more recently Google and Amazon have exploited and tuned into their own multi-billion dollar businesses.

A challenge for IBM recently has been that many of these West Coast upstarts have been offering products that threaten their grip on the enterprise. Cloud is the most typical example where we see even the largest organisations choosing Amazon’s AWS product which is also a firm favourite amongst technology start-ups. Amazon like a number of others have found a way to sell their product to both ends of the market, from the enterprise to the micro-organisation. Today IBM takes a major step in both its fight back against these competitors and in what could be a major evolution of the company.

Announcing IBM BlueMix

IBM has just announced the public beta of their Cloud product codenamed BlueMix. We have been following BlueMix’s progress for some time at CIC and so we’re excited to see it finally start to emerge into the world. So what is BlueMix? Essentially it is Pivotal’s Cloud Foundry Platform as a Service (PaaS) running on IBM’s SoftLayer infrastructure. Cloud Foundry is an open source project consisting of a collection of services that offer a broad range of capabilities from compute and storage through to specific functionality. A developer bolts together the services that they want into an application which runs in the Cloud. For example one could build a server application such as a web service using Node.js with a MongoDB database.

IBM have brought some of their own services into BlueMix as well such as a mobile push notifications service They are running it on their much touted Softlayer environment offering high performance,security and a low cost, pay by usage pricing model . Only a couple of weeks ago IBM announced that SoftLayer was going to a get a billion-dollar upgrade in the form of new datacentres. In addition IBM have grouped services into typical use cases such as mobile and Internet of Things making it easy for example to bolt together a mobile Backend as a Service (BaaS).

Touting for wider market appeal

What’s important about this announcement is not the nuts and bolts: Cloud Foundry has been around for a while and IBM have added some stuff; SoftLayer is a known quantity. What’s important is who this product is aimed at. Everyone.

Unlike Smartcloud which was typical IBM “enterprise only” fair, BlueMix is being targeted at both the enterprise market and the small guy: the start-up entrepreneur; the indie developer; the student hacker. IBM have employed an agency specifically to market at these folks with campaigns such as one that includes cartoon robots threatening global domination. This is a whole new go to market strategy for IBM and is supported by a whole new billion dollar division within the company.

A Cloud service for the new developer generation

The marketing offensive begins with a special hacker’s conference inside IBM’s annual Pulse cloud event in Las Vegas this week. In addition IBM will be pushing BlueMix at Mobile World Congress also this week in Barcelona and then at CeBIT later in the year. Beyond these big events there will be a sustained campaign of smaller in-person events and online activities.

For customers this is a significant moment as we know from Amazon’s success that people want Cloud services and that they like them typically open source (Java, PhP, Ruby, Node.js and so on). We have seen the more proprietary offerings from Microsoft and even Google fail to gain much traction in the PaaS market. Now customers have a real choice to weigh up against the mighty AWS. A stack of open source services all backed by the world’s most established IT vendor running on a high performance infrastructure that is about to get a billion dollar+ upgrade.

A big step forward for brand IBM

The flipside of the coin is that for IBM this marks a giant step into the mass market. If they can get BlueMix right then it could be the start of multiple new markets opening up for them. They have already seen success in gaming with SoftLayer. Instead of the staid enterprise vendor of old this initiative has the potential to refresh IBM’s image while at the same time growing its customer base substantially. It also fights back against the dangers that other vendors pose to their traditional enterprise base. With the increasing adoption of Amazon inside the enterprise, IBM had to offer those customers something. BlueMix gives them the fast to test, fast to market type cloud product that they will need to rapidly deliver applications in future. All of this comes with the IBM stamp of enterprise grade quality.

There are risks but also opportunity for incredible rewards

This does not come without dangers. Cloud Foundry has been around a while and has not taken off and was recently criticised by one its originators for the “collection of services” approach to PaaS. Do developers really want to bolt together disparate third party services to create applications? Heroku has had some success with this. IBM needs to get a firm handle on it or at least its “flavour” of Cloud Foundry and not have it turn into the type of open source community led mess that we’ve seen before.

There is detail to flesh out in the way in which applications can be developed and deployed especially within large scale team environments with governance rules. For example how does the development environment work versus production? Is all development done in the cloud or on a local environment in which case how are the two synchronised to avoid configuration conflicts? IBM have shown their enterprise pedigree by including some DevOps capabilities out of the gate which is more than can be said for some of the competition.

More significantly they will need to overcome people’s prejudices that anything IBM is simply too expensive for mere mortals. Many of their new target audience may switch off at the first mention of those three letters. How will their go to market strategy handle this challenge?

More of this is going to get fleshed out during the beta phase and through the various marketing activities and events happening over the coming weeks and months. However if IBM can get this right then the effects could be seismic for customers, IBM and the market by delivering a competitive alternative to Amazon in the market place. We wait and see.

CIC is at both Pulse and Mobile World Congress this week and will be providing updates on BlueMix.