Closing the Loop: IBM and SoftLayer

SoftLayer is a fascinating company in that it enjoys closing the loop. I think when the founders of SoftLayer left The Planet to form a new hosting company they probably did not believe the two companies would be back together again. And yet several years later, SoftLayer and The Planet merged. There is another circle SoftLayer is a major player in and it involves no less than the entirety of the computer industry….

Computers in business started life, mainly, as mainframes. When you look back at the late 1950’s to somewhere in the ‘70s you will find that the mainframe was the way to go. It was a centralized piece of hardware in which you could access computing resources via a terminal. IBM was the head of the pack when it came to building mainframes (they still are at the head of the industry claiming a dominant market share) and understood the industry better than just about anyone.

IBM’s lead was so great back in the 1960s that the whole mainframe industry was called IBM and the seven dwarves (Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data Corporation, Honeywell, RCA, and GE). But somewhere in the midst of their stride IBM lost the whole of the computer industry. Personal computers had hit the scene and, in the words of some, liberated the entire computer industry. Instead of having terminals, workers had whole computers at their desk and had the freedom to use them as they saw fit (much to the chagrin of the IT department; I think we all have our share of horror stories, my favorites are anything that involves installing AOL).

With the personal computer, the mainframe industry began an incredible decline. How far a decline you might ask? Well according to Gartner, the mainframe industry is forecasted to hit $4.7 billion in 2016. By comparison Gartner predicts the personal computer industry will hit $47 billion by 2016. But I wouldn’t feel too bad for IBM….

In the mid-2000s, quality hosted infrastructure was based on dedicated servers. Those who provided the best services, the RackSpaces, SoftLayers, and SingleHops of the world, built their infrastructure on enterprise grade server platforms. To position themselves ahead of the pack, they all added private networks; networks that create a complete segregation between clients for added speed and security. As infrastructure providers continue to find means of differentiation the thought leaders in the space began exploring the next big move. They found it in a new form of operations model that merges many current technologies with the sensibilities of mainframe procedures. This new operations model became known as cloud computing.

What is an infrastructure provider? In a nutshell, we find a way to provide the necessary resources to support our customer’s workloads. If a customer wants to host email for a 1,000 employees we ensure that they can do it in as efficient and secure a way possible. Here’s the thing though, workloads change and not just year after year, but often from hour to hour. When the office hours are done, most businesses do not need to have the bulk of their computers running. Online stores who service local markets general have higher demands during local work hours and a lot less resource demands in the off hours. This is just the way things work.

So when cloud computing came on the scene, the thought leaders in the infrastructure space took hold of it. We all thought this is the way to ensure that our customer’s needs are serviced not just today, but tomorrow, and the next day hour to hour, minute to minute.

When you look at the definition of a mainframe and that of cloud computing, it is difficult to tell the two apart. Both offer a self-healing, fault tolerant framework with extreme reliability and uptime. Both offer methods for redundancy and a centralized platform for performing maintenance and system upgrades. Both are accessible from just about anywhere. Indeed, you can almost go so far as saying that cloud computing is a hosted mainframe with (hopefully) geolocalization.

In this light, IBM’s purchase of SoftLayer brings the mainframe full circle.