IBM on Monday launched a major initiative into cloud computing, a current term for Internet-based services, in an effort it hopes will challenge the early lead of cloud pioneers such as Amazon and Google.
Among the offerings launched on Monday is "Bluehouse," a Web-based social-networking and collaboration service designed for business, a test version of which is available from IBM's Web site.
Bluehouse allows users to carry out many of the activities associated with social networks, but is specifically designed for businesses, with features such as document and contact sharing, joint projects, online meetings and online communities. The project is intended as a way for businesses to connect to partners, agencies, suppliers, customers, and outside experts.
Other services introduced on Monday include Lotus Sametime Unyte, for Web conferences and document sharing; Rational Policy Tester OnDemand, which scans Web content to deal with compliance issues; Rational AppScan OnDemand, which scans Web applications for security bugs; and Telelogic Focal Point, which enables information sharing among project management, engineering, marketing, and other teams.
The concept of cloud computing incorporates other recent developments in Internet-based computing, such as software as a service and the rich browser-based interfaces associated with Web 2.0. Google promotes the concept through its Google Apps, and Amazon through its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).
The term "cloud" itself is an abstraction of the idea of the Internet, and is based on the cloud symbol often used to represent the Internet in diagrams.
Like Amazon, Google, and others, IBM has recently invested in data centers specifically geared for the delivery of cloud services. It has new centers in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Bangalore, India; Seoul, Korea; and Hanoi, Vietnam, bringing the total number of its hubs to 13.
Unlike more Internet-centric companies, IBM said it is able to help companies run services internally, as well as taking advantage of the cloud.
For instance, IBM's clients and partners will be given access to specialists in its 13 cloud-computing centers and 40 IBM Innovation Centers, who can help organizations test their applications. IBM is also creating a series of white papers and is providing marketing resources for software makers who want to build and sell their own cloud services.
"We are moving our clients, the industry and even IBM itself to have a mixture of data and applications that live in the data center and in the cloud," Willy Chiu, vice president of high performance on demand solutions at IBM, said in a statement.
IBM argued that cloud computing is a way for businesses to draw more value from their existing IT infrastructures, since much of the work is offloaded onto remote servers, but the cloud-computing concept has received sharp criticism recently from the likes of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman.
In an interview with The Guardian last week, free software pioneer Stallman said cloud computing is "worse than stupidity" because it leaves users vulnerable.
"If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's Web server, you're defenseless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software," he said.
During Oracle's annual financial analyst meeting in September, Ellison also criticized the companies rushing to roll out cloud services, saying the trend is "fashion-driven."
"It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?" Ellison said.
Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, speaking to delegates at a Microsoft-sponsored developer conference in London last week, said the company will launch an operating system for the cloud in four weeks.
Tentatively titled "Windows Cloud," although Ballmer suggested it would have a "snazzier name" at launch, the product is designed to make it possible to "just...write an application and...push it to the cloud," Ballmer said.
Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.