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The Bridge to IBM's SmartCloud Now has a SoftLayer

06/24/2013 01:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

In the world according to rumor and speculation -- there's a lot of that in the rapidly changing world of technology -- why did IBM acquire SoftLayer?

• Was it to compete directly against Amazon Web Services, as one industry insider told me at the Cloud East Expo in New York?
• Was it part of IBM's corporate strategy and 2015 Mobile Roadmap?
• Or was it part of the venerable company to get younger, faster?

In the former, Amazon appeared to have sealed the $600 million on-premise cloud contract with the CIA two months ago, when news this month surfaced about the intelligence project is now a two-horse race between AWS and IBM. Such competition is good for the taxpayers. IBM had no comment on what stage those discussions are at.

In speaking with Denis Quan, PhD, Vice President of IBM SmartCloud Enterprise, and two SoftLayer executives at the Cloud Expo, coupled with a follow up interview with the director of IBM's MobileFirst initiative, I came away with a lot more intel than mere speculation.

After talking to SoftLayer's Duke Skarda, CTO, and Simon West, CMO, my bet on the reason why IBM made the acquisition was a combination of the mobile, younger strategy, not just competitive juices flowing between tech giants.

Duke Skarda said, "At SoftLayer we focus on delivering a broad range of cloud infrastructure."

Simon West began to explain in his fast-talking British accent: "We've built a powerful software platform to completely automate the data center. We offer a virtualized cloud infrastructure--the traditional virtualized, multi-tenant platform. Then, SoftLayer has a range of bare metal dedicated cloud servers for performance-intensive workloads. Customers can combine these two compute models to build highly scalable public, private or hybrid cloud infrastructures across our global footprint depending on their needs, and manage the entire environment from one portal and a powerful API."

SoftLayer in the Cloud
"We have more than 100,000 physical servers located at 13 datacenters around the world, serving 140 countries, backed by a single pane web portal with a support team," Mr. West said.

"We have achieved steady growth since 2005. The challenges we faced were business challenges," Mr. Skarda said. "We did a merger in 2009 with The Planet Internet Company," which, like SoftLayer, has its roots in Texas. "The Planet had a good customer base and operations. SoftLayer had a great bare metal cloud platform. It was a natural fit for us."

As with the IBM acquisition, at first I had trouble seeing the natural fit. So I asked SoftLayer's West and Skarda: "What verticals do you serve?"

"Our customers were born on the web," Mr. West said. "Companies that are into gaming, iPhones, digital, social media. We have 100 million gamers in our ecosystem. Our cloud offerings were built from the ground up for those Internet-centric companies."

West added, "Both companies have gaps. Both are technology and business oriented. Over the next five years IBM will allow us to expand geographically, accelerate our business plans. Both companies are intensely tech-driven, innovators with similar cultures."

Lifecycle of the Enterprise
"There's a fundamental shift in the way the enterprise is going to evolve," Duke Skarda said. "We are well-suited architecturally for large enterprises going forward. SoftLayer offers a secure environment and unified platform."

Dennis Quan said, "SoftLayer is part of the new SmartCloud Services division in IBM Global. The value proposition for IBM, cloud without compromise. We have strength in the enterprise, cloud computing, enterprise use cases, private, Open Stack, hybrid platforms. Clients today need public and private clouds to keep open standards, to leverage scalability, to find solutions. IBM has PaaS and a robust SaaS portfolio, part of our Smarter Planet Solutions."

He paused, and said, "Another big factor for the acquisition is to take enterprise level security, the compliance need to switch. Start with standards. Add Open Stack to SoftLayer."

West added, "Or what I call take a broad set of Legos and make it even broader. There's a lot of that in mobile."

To learn more about IBM mobile, I reached out to IBM's Michael Gilfix, Director of Mobile Enterprise Solutions, in a phone interview.

IBM MobileFirst initiative
"IBM's MobileFirst initiative begins with investing heavily in mobility. We see it as a huge transformation with mobile being the primary access point, the mechanism for user interaction with businesses. This will create different ways to make employees more productive to support the rapidly growing space on a first class basis," Michael Gilfix said.

With expertise in IBM's business process unit, prior to coming to the Mobile Enterprise Solutions unit, Gilfix said, "We are investing in mobile across IBM, investing in shoring up our portfolio and IBM capabilities."

To Mr. Gilfix, the next generation digital platform will empower users the "ability to have access to data" as they never had before. "It will allow them to service their end customer in more personalized ways. That will create a lot of value with an increasing focus on design. The new employee will need the kind of skills to meet the next generation of productivity," he said.

He emphasized that traditional workflow will change as, "Mobile is about leveraging context: what's known about a user, incorporating their surroundings via device sensors, new device form factors."

Michael Gilfix said, "A perfect example is the changing relationship with digital content." He discussed how mobile would become so "pervasive" in our daily lives. The old viewership was the cable model that was delivered during "couch time." Now mobility goes beyond smartphones and tablets. It will show up in set-top boxes on TVs (watch out cable), dashboards in the car, and control sensors in the home. "These new data points will drive new context to gain information on the end user in ways we haven't even thought about," he said.

A big part of that new ecosystem will be the need to overcome the lag created by "device fragmentation." The other part will be securing data. He brought up a valid point on the BYOD trend, saying, "Where does the company draw and define the boundary in an employee's device?"

Mr. Gilfix finished his thoughts about mobile growth: "It's all about maximizing the multi-channel experience."

The tech ecosystem is expanding rapidly like the universe, from galaxies (industries) and constellations (enterprises) to stars and planets, or us people as consumers and mobile data points in business and our everyday lives.