IBM Previews “Blue Business” SMB System Sales Approach
May 5, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Last week, at its Business Partner Leadership Conference in Los Angeles, IBM gave its partners and customers a sneak peek at a future application and systems strategy, code-named the “Blue Business Platform,” that Big Blue could roll out this year or next. While that doesn’t sound like much of a code-name, the Blue Business Platform project represents a new and potentially game-changing way in which IBM will chase the $500 billion IT market driven by small and medium businesses worldwide.
According to Mike Prochaska, program director for the Blue Business Platform, the project has been underway for the past nine months in the newly constituted Business Systems division headed by Erich Clementi since January 2008 and by Marc Dupaquier throughout 2007. The project has tapped Mike Smith, formerly the chief software architect for the System i product line when it was a distinct product, to drive the creation of the new systems approach, which one IBMer has described to me as iTunes meets Amazon meets SMB IT. (Technically, Smith is the CTO for the Blue Business Platform project, and significantly, was instrumental in getting PHP and VoIP technologies ported to the System i platform in 2006.)
IBM is being a bit vague about exactly what the Blue Business Platform will be, and what the official name for the products that come out of the project will be. But the company is providing a few hints. “We are trying to re-engage in the SMB space and have a much broader reach for ourselves and our ISV partners,” explains Prochaska, saying that in many ways, the project is taking the application-centric sales model of the original–and very successful–AS/400 from two decades ago and modernizing it for a world that has the Internet for supporting local and remote computing. IBM says that it has identified 1 million customers worldwide that it thinks it can chase with pre-integrated business applications that will run on the collection of operating systems and servers peddled by the Business Systems division. That includes i5/OS (and its kicker, i for Business or i 6.1, whichever way you like to say it) as well as AIX and Linux on Power.
And given the sensitivity that OS/400 and i5/OS shops are feeling these days, having lost their division and platform distinction in the merger of the System i and System p lines into a common Power Systems platform, Prochaska wants to be clear that the i platform and the independent software vendors who have created solutions for that operating system and integrated database are going to be key players in the configuration and sale of the Blue Business Platform–whatever it is ultimately called when it comes to market. But don’t expect IBM to emphasize the platform–whether it is an operating system or its server–because that is not going to happen. Because the idea behind the Blue Business Platform Project is to mask the underlying technology from customers and focus on the solution they need, which in turn drives a particular platform and configuration choice.
“This is not going to be hardware centric or software centric,” says Prochaska. “We are really trying to change the way we do this, and the product will be solution led–we are not talking about Power6 or blades or whatever. We are talking about providing a solution to a customer–to run a 12-person medical office, for example–and only then, after the solution is sold, does IBM and the value-added reseller work together to build the system and deliver it to the customer. And moreover, the real magic will happen after the solution gets sold and installed. Having said all of that, i5/OS is front and center on this, and we are not leaving those i ISVs behind. We are going to give them a new way to sell solutions.”
The one thing you don’t hear IBM say in all this is “Windows.” Read into that what you will, but I think it will be tempting for IBM to push i, AIX, Linux, and maybe even some small mainframe applications (maybe, maybe not) and try to give Microsoft and Oracle as little money as possible.
At the Business Partner Leadership Conference, IBM debuted the backbone of the Blue Business Platform, an application framework that operating systems, systems management, database, middleware, and application software all plug into so they present use a common set of APIs and a common toolkit that will enable the remote management, patching, and updating of the entire solution–including the applications themselves. This framework will also allow remote services to plug into locally hosted applications residing on a box of some sort or for remote applications to be linked to local applications as well. The intent is to make the delivery of services, such as disaster recovery or data replication, transparent and to greatly automate the patching of the stack of software in a solution and the monitoring of the underlying hardware. The framework also has features to keep track of how users are defined and configured for the different kinds of software on the box, which will presumably allow for better and more accurate per-user software fees–and even on real-time, utility-style pricing.
That’s the back-end of the Blue Business Platform system. The front end will be an online marketplace, complete with end user ratings, called the Global Application Marketplace, which will launch sometime later this year and which will include the solutions that have been tweaked to work with the application framework IBM has created and to run on the respective platforms that will ultimately be the Blue Business Platform. Apparently, the Lotus Foundations Start family of server appliances, which will be generally available in the second quarter, are examples of the kind of platform IBM is building under the project.
One last thing: There is very little question that whatever IBM builds under the Blue Business Platform will almost certainly be a heterogeneous platform as it is delivered with its solution stack. Most customers run a mix of operating systems, and with the framework providing a consistent way of updating and maintaining the software and hardware, it really won’t matter to the end user customer which OS is used where. Well, not at least until one of them starts failing all the time and another one never does. . . .