Why open source could be IBM's key to future success in the cloud

IBM is an also-ran in the cloud, but its work with open source communities suggests that maybe, just maybe, the company can forge a stronger future.

Ask most developers what they think of IBM and you'll get a blank stare in response. "IB-who?" In our brave new cloud world, IBM—once so imperious with CIO golf calendars—is generally an afterthought for developers looking to deploy to the cloud. And yet there remain good reasons to consider Big Blue, especially for enterprises that have significant investments in IBM.

Instead of asking IBM, however, which tends to come up with antiquated answers like "Because we're rad with Java," I spoke with Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, who gave me a more compelling answer: Because IBM has deep experience making open source work in the enterprise.

It's not sexy, but it's critical.

Snoring through Java

When Thomas Claburn asked IBM's Java CTO John Duimovich to justify the company's cloud existence to developers, the answer was far from convincing:

In the Java space, we're the experts. We have hardware experts. We've actually redesigned instructions on [processor architecture] Power and on [our mainframe] Z over the years to give better Java support. We have our own JVM, OpenJ9, that's newly open sourced this year. That's got advanced features that give you the same throughput for half the memory, for example.

Excited much? Sure, IBM has a deep bench in Java, but that's hardly the first requirement of companies looking to move workloads to the cloud. Instead they're anxious to get access to the suite of services that companies like AWS, Microsoft, and Google offer, with the need for virtual machines obviated completely. IBM's work with JVMs may be nice, but it's not what the cloud kids want.

SEE: Job description: Java developer (Tech Pro Research)

(Also, it's worth noting that AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud each makes it quite easy to build Java applications. Maybe IBM's cloud is more optimized for Java applications. If so, that advantage isn't enough to make up for all its other shortcomings, services-wise.)

Making open source great again

Though cloud has become the "hardware" of choice for a new generation of developers, the software language they speak remains open source. In the open source world, few companies can claim as much experience as IBM.

"IBM is the organization that put Linux on the map. People forget that," Zemlin told me. IBM, he continued, "has invested billions of their own capital, tens of billions of their own labor, and over time created hundreds of billions of value for customers."

People forget this, but IBM is behind much of the boring, behind-the-scenes work that made open source safe for developers, whether they wear the badge of a Fortune 500 company or work out of their parents' basement. IBM is also behind "some of the biggest technical implementations in the world," building on "open source code maybe not to build the next Facebook, but to build a supply chain management application to track the provenance of blood diamonds, using blockchain and hyperledger to track Walmart's food supply chain," Zemlin said.

Boring? Yes. Super cool? Also yes.

Making open source pay

One example is hyperledger, an open source project born at IBM. As Zemlin tells it, IBM contributed the hyperledger code to the Linux Foundation because "they saw the need for a non-cryptocurrency blockchain and had a code base and a bunch of organizations that wanted to do collective innovation."

Of course, IBM isn't doing this for peace, love, and open source. While the company has struggled financially for years, its commitment to open source hasn't flagged, as the company sees developer-driven open source as the natural complement to its proprietary software and hardware businesses. IBM needs developers.

SEE: Blockchain: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Do those same developers need IBM? Developers certainly benefit from IBM's investments in open source, but it's not as clear that those same developers have much to gain from IBM's cloud. Google, for example, has done a stellar job open sourcing code like TensorFlow and Kubernetes that feeds naturally into running related workloads on Google Cloud Platform. Aside from touting its Java bonafides, however, IBM has yet to demonstrate that developers get significant benefits for modern workloads on its cloud.

That's IBM's big challenge: Translating its open source expertise into real, differentiated value for developers on its cloud.

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Image: iStockphoto/Wavebreakmedia

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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