IBM Targets Fortune 500 With SoftLayer Acquisition

IBM's purchase of cloud provider SoftLayer show how serious Big Blue is about beefing up its enterprise services business. The acquisition comes with important technology, new customer segments and substantial capacity.

Kurt Marko

June 5, 2013

4 Min Read
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Tuesday was a big day for corporate buyouts, with two tech titans making significant moves to bolster their cloud services portfolios. Coming on the heels of's purchase of cloud marketing firm ExactTarget, IBM announced the acquisition of SoftLayer Technologies, which it claims is the world's largest privately held cloud computing infrastructure provider. IBM did not release financial details on the size of the deal.

SoftLayer is an appealing acquisition target, which also caught the attention of EMC, and brings substantial assets to IBM's growing cloud portfolio. The firm has about 700 employees serving 21,000 customers. Its globally distributed cloud infrastructure is composed of 13 data centers across three continents, many of which, including its Dallas headquarters, are leased facilities from Digital Realty Trust.

Yet the big draw for IBM isn't the space, nor even the incremental revenue, which Moody's estimated at about $364 million for the 12 months ended last June. Instead, it's SoftLayer's cloud-savvy customers, which include a host of fast-growing SaaS developers, gaming sites and social networks. SoftLayer's technology platform is also a factor; it includes the ability to provision multi-tenant public VMs, single-tenant private VMs and private bare metal servers.

Although IBM has built its cloud portfolio on the sort of hybrid, public/private architecture its enterprise customers with large internal infrastructure are beginning to adopt, Ric Telford, the firm's VP of SmartCloud services, says the addition of dedicated physical servers facilitates porting on-premise, mission-critical applications that weren't necessarily designed for virtualizing to a cloud service. "It's an on-ramp to the cloud for the Fortune 500 customer," he said.

For SoftLayer, CEO Lance Crosby says IBM offers a way to quickly tap into the large enterprise market through access to IBM's global sales and consulting force and mission-critical technology while significantly expanding its data center footprint. Although SoftLayer currently only supports x86 servers, Clementi says the combined organization will extend the platform to support IBM's Tier 1 storage and POWER RISC-based virtual and physical servers.

On the software side, Telford says the company will begin unifying management consoles by building support for the SoftLayer IMS (infrastructure management system) into the IBM SmartCloud Enterprise services.

In recognition of the growing size and importance of the cloud services business, IBM also announced that once the acquisition is complete (which is expected in the third quarter) the SoftLayer and SmartCloud portfolios will be rolled into a new Cloud Services division within its Global Services business. IBM expects the new division to generate $7 billion in revenue by the end of 2015, a number that Erich Clementi, SVP, IBM Global Technology Services, points out is but a tiny fraction of its potential. Although IBM sees accelerating cloud investment by its customers, Clementi estimated that cloud services still represent less than 1% of the total IT services market.

IBM's move is emblematic of a cloud market that is maturing, consolidating and segmenting. The firm is clearly targeting its existing stable of blue blood Fortune 500 clients, not scrappy Silicon Valley startups. As I wrote in contrasting the recent vCloud Hybrid and Google Compute Engine announcements, cloud services are evolving in two different directions: Utility-like products such as AWS and GCE target very different workloads and customers than enterprise-focused services such as SmartCloud and vCloud.

Indeed, the expansive way IBM (and SoftLayer) use the term cloud is somewhat misleading, since a dedicated, bare metal server sure sounds like the service formerly known as managed hosting. That said, it does serve as that "on-ramp" to more AWS-like services. Big Blue is out to make the cloud safe for its gargantuan customers with multibillion-dollar businesses relying on mission-critical IT applications and services and who can't switch infrastructure architectures on a dime.

It's a logical strategy that nicely differentiates IBM from more established cloud competitors should the pace of cloud evolution follow historical IT timelines. But if the cloud transition takes a revolutionary jump akin to the disruptive PC-to-mobile migration, and large organizations like the CIA embrace greenfield deployments using AWS or Google. IBM and other legacy IT service providers will find themselves in a vastly more challenging competitive environment. It will be interesting to watch.

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