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IBM and Microsoft Forge Cross-Cloud Partnership

Microsoft may be trying to compete with IBM in the emerging market for machine learning-based intelligence but like all rivals, these two with a storied past together have their share of mutual interests even as they tout competing public enterprise clouds. Hence the two are the latest to forge a cloud compatibility partnership.

The companies said today they are working together to ensure some of their respective database and middleware offerings can run on both the IBM Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Coming to Microsoft Azure is IBM's WebSphere Liberty application server platform, MQ middleware and DB2 database. IBM's Pure Application Service will also run on Microsoft Azure the two companies said.

In exchange, Windows Server and SQL Server will work on the IBM Cloud. Both companies are collaborating to provide Microsoft's .NET runtime for IBM Bluemix, the company's new cloud development platform. While the IBM Cloud already has support for Microsoft's Hyper-V, IBM said it will add expanded support for the virtualization platform that's included in Windows Server. It was not immediately clear how they will improve Hyper-V support on the IBM Cloud.

Andrew Brust, a research director at Gigaom Research, said that the IBM Cloud, which is based on the SoftLayer public cloud IBM acquired last year for $2 billion, runs a significant amount of Hyper-V instances. "They explained to me that they have a 'non-trivial' amount of Windows business and that they support Hyper-V VMs," Brust said.

"With that in mind, the announcement makes sense, especially when you consider [Microsoft CEO] Satya's [Nadella] comment on Monday that Azure will 'compose' with other clouds," Brust added. The comment made by Nadella took place Monday when he was articulating on Microsoft's strategy to build Azure into a "hyperscale" cloud. "We are not building our hyperscale cloud in Azure in isolation," Nadella said.  "We are building it to compose well with other clouds."

Nadella spelled out recent efforts to do that including last week's announcement that Microsoft is working with Docker to develop Docker containers for Windows Server, its support for native Java via its Oracle partnership (which, like IBM, includes its database and middleware offerings) as well as broad support for other languages including PHP, Python and Node.js. "This is just a subset of the open source as well as other middle-tier frameworks and languages that are supported on Azure," Nadella said at the event.

Most analysts agree that Amazon, Microsoft and Google operate the world's largest cloud infrastructures but with SoftLayer, IBM has a formidable public cloud as well. Both IBM and Microsoft are seeing considerable growth with their respective cloud offerings but have reasonably sized holes to fill as well.

Nadella said Monday that Microsoft has a $4.4 billion cloud business -- still a small fraction of its overall revenues but rapidly growing.  For its part, IBM said on its earnings call Monday that its public cloud infrastructure is in a $3.1 billion run rate and its overall cloud business is up 50 percent, though the company's spectacular earnings miss has Wall Street wondering if IBM has failed to move quickly enough. The company's shares have tumbled in recent days and analysts are questioning whether the company needs a reboot similar to the one former CEO Lou Gerstner gave it two decades ago.

"Overall, this looks like a marriage of equals where both stand to gain by working harmoniously together," said PundIT Analyst Charles King. Forrester Research Analyst James Staten agreed. "IBM and Microsoft both need each other in this regard so a nice quid quo pro here," he said.

For Microsoft, adding IBM to the mix is just the latest in a spate of cloud partnerships. In addition to its partnership with Oracle last year, Microsoft recently announced a once-unthinkable cloud partnership with and just tapped Dell to deliver its latest offering, the new Cloud Platform System, which the company describes as an "Azure-consistent cloud in a box" that it will begin offering to customers next month.

It also appears that IBM and Microsoft held back some of their crown jewels in this partnership. There was no mention of IBM's Watson or Big SQL, which is part of its InfoSphere Platform on Hadoop, based on a Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS). During a briefing last week at Strata + Hadoop World in New York, IBM VP for Big Data Anjul Bhambhri described the recent third release of Big SQL in use with some big insurance companies. "Some of their queries which they were using on Hive, were taking 45 minutes to run," she said. "In Big SQL those kinds of things are 17 rejoins is now less than 5 minutes."

Likewise, the announcement doesn't seem to cover Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning or AzureHD Insights offerings. I checked with both companies and while both are looking into it, there was no response as of this posting. It also wasn't immediately clear when the offerings announced would be available.

Update: A Microsoft spokeswoman responded to some questions posed on the rollout of the services on both companies' cloud. Regarding the availability of IBM's software on Azure: "In the coming weeks, Microsoft Open Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft, will publish license-included virtual machine images with key IBM software pre-installed," she stated. "Customers can take advantage of these virtual machines to use the included IBM software in a 'pay-per-use' fashion. Effective immediately, IBM has updated its policies to allow customers to bring their own license to Microsoft Azure by installing supported IBM software on a virtual machine in Azure."

As it pertains to using Microsoft's software in the IBM cloud, she noted: "Windows Server and SQL Server are available for use on IBM Cloud effective immediately. IBM will be offering a limited preview of .NET on IBM Cloud in the near future." And regarding plans to offer improves support for Hyper-V in the IBM Cloud: "Hyper-V is ready to run very well on IBM SoftLayer to provide virtualized infrastructure and apps. IBM is expanding its product support for Hyper-V."

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 10/22/2014 at 2:22 PM


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