Review: IBM Cloud is built to order

Big Blue lets you have public cloud your way with bare metal, private instances, and even custom-configured hardware options

Review: IBM Cloud is built to order
Eliza Grinnell

There was a time long ago when IBM ruled the cloud, although no one used that word back then. The company’s mainframe line in the 1960s and '70s was the original distant and unseen pile of metal and silicon meant to be shared among all users. Each program got a slice of the big machine’s time, and everyone understood they were “time sharing,” which sounds a bit more precise than the amorphous word “cloud.”

That was then. Today, no one should be surprised that IBM is playing in the modern cloud business because it practically invented the idea decades ago. The current clouds generally use the same slicing and dicing as IBM’s original time-sharing 360 architecture, although the modern cloud sales lingo hides this fact behind the metaphor that these are individual “instances” that act like individual machines.

The process is different too. In the 1960s, you bumped into an IBM salesman at the country club who took you for a few rounds of golf and more than a few drinks. Today you wiggle some sliders on your Web page and the price pops up, like on AWS, Google and Azure -- no drinks, no golf, no country club. But the price is much lower and you’re not making a commitment that lasts more than a few minutes. When all is clicked and paid for, these services are pretty similar to the ones offered by the other major clouds. You get an instance that runs some code.

Real servers for rent

But IBM is also offering something a bit different from the Amazon, Google, and Microsoft clouds. It’s willing to rent you “bare-metal servers,” which pretty much means a real physical box, the kind we used to buy and install in the rack of that machine room down the hall. In this case IBM installs the box in its own racks in its own server farms, although you can pay a bit more for a private rack if you want.

The sales literature is even a bit humorous and nostalgic to anyone who has been lost in the modern cloud. One section warns how it can take several hours for someone to locate your server and actually install RAM, GPU cards, or other real hardware in it. It’s not as retro as golf and country clubs, but a real person has to get off their rear end, shake a leg, and wander through racks and racks so that you can have more RAM. Everyone else has tried to leave the physical world behind us by building a software layer that creates virtual machines, but IBM has built a real machine room that builds real machines to order.

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