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On IBM Ninja Moves at VMware, Swift Blank Space and Github

I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name – Taylor Swift

Last week at IBM’s Interconnect conference it made a series of announcements intended to demonstrate relevance in the cloud era – with the likes of VMware, Apple and Github. My colleague Fintan offers a summary here.

Helping enterprise customers make the transition to the cloud is job one for incumbent vendors so IBM announced a partnership with VMware to help customers migrate virtual workloads to IBM’s SoftLayer Infrastructure As a Service (IaaS) Platform. The deal signals that VMware is moving away from the idea of running its own platform, vCloud AIR. Competing on public cloud infrastructure build out is brutal from an investment perspective, and VMware has always been a channel play, so it certainly makes sense for VMware. The is not exclusive, but according to Barbara Darrow at Forbes it may have been more of a coup than was immediately obvious – How IBM Stole Google’s Thunder.

“Google really wanted to announce this and then all of a sudden IBM did a ninja move, and it was IBM’s deal,” said one source close to VMware who had knowledge of the process.

So why IBM and not Google? Well, for one thing, IBM has experience selling and implementing vSphere.

In advance of last week’s news, Jim Comfort, chief technology officer for IBM’s cloud unit, told Fortune that IBM’s services business is VMware’s largest distributor and that the company has already worked with VMware’s NSX network virtualization gear on SoftLayer.

That sort of experience is not something that Google, with its massive shared public cloud infrastructure, can claim—even though VMware co-founder Diane Greene has led Google’s enterprise group since November.

IBM experience being valuable. Whatever next… 😉 The deal isn’t exclusive, but it lays out a marker. It’s also worth mentioning the Github deal here – IBM and Github say they plan to offer Github Enterprise as a service on IBM Bluemix. Developer pipelines is a hot topic in tech right now – it’s kind of the new Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) – as cloud platforms integrate agile and continuous integration tools and approaches into their platforms.

The biggest bet and the most substantive Interconnect news from a developer perspective was an announcement with Apple – IBM is taking Swift onto the server side, in order to foster an open ecosystem for the new programming language. Apple open sourced Swift in late 2015, but it will need help if it wants to broaden it’s appeal beyond IOS developers.

Apple likes to be in control of the context in which it makes announcements and there was no doubting its commitment. Brian Croll, vice-president of product marketing at Apple, made the high level pitch, but then language creator Chris Lattner made an appearance too, to give a demo, which was pretty cool.

Swift is already the the fastest growing programming language we have tracked since we began our Programming Language Rankings but Apple wants Swift to become a dominant language. Many commentators have argued that Apple is giving IBM a leg up with the partnership, but IBM brings a great deal to the table.

Apple itself is at somewhat of a crossroads. Slowing global growth has hurt sales, which Apple forecasts are set to fall for the first time since 2003. Investors are now worrying about Peak Apple. Enterprise is an obvious potential source of new revenue growth, though CEO Tim Cook says it is already a $25bn business.

But as Tim Cook admits: ” “We don’t have deep knowledge of all the verticals that enterprise is in,” Cook acknowledged, referring to selling to specific sectors like the financial services and energy.”

IBM on the other hand… is of course all about those verticals – and finance, manufacturing, public sector.

It has been heads down developing IOS-specific apps using Swift – now over 100 – for those industries, and it has the sales channels and experience Apple clearly lacks.

One of the classic moves in the IBM playbook is to create a market by working closely with another major partner to define and carve out a space. Examples of the technique include working with Sun in the 1990s to define and push Java into the mainstream Enterprise, and also the Service Oriented Architecture wave with Microsoft, defining the WS-* stack. Both Java and SOA, while maligned by many for overcomplexity, defined the industry for a period of years. IBM is good at this stuff. See its similar move to carve out a space for Cloud Foundry in the enterprise, with Pivotal playing the role of BEA in a new app container wave. On that note IBM’s Bluemix PaaS also supports Swift with a Cloud Foundry buildpack.

swift at ibm

IBM isn’t just saying Swift is cool, it’s committed from an engineering perspective. Check out its Swift sandbox – the easiest way to take a look at the language, allowing you to write and run code from the browser. Sample code is so far fairly limited but we can expect IBM to move forward with this pretty quickly. But how does Swift work when it’s not running on an Apple device? On Ubuntu Swift takes advantage of glibc c and C++ libraries. One big question in my mind is graphics and windowing on non-Apple devices and what that might look like. The legacy of Objective-c is also a question. Swift makes developing for IOS a lot easier, but supporting Objective-c libraries so as not to cut off existing developers creates technical debt. The question is – can you actually be Swift developer at this point without also being an Objective-c developer?

At Interconnect IBM also announced a Swift framework/web server project called Kitura, inspired by Express.js. IBM is hoping that Swift will attract developers to fill in all the white space, in the same way as Javascript developers rushed in to create libraries and frameworks in Node.js. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Or as Taylor Swift puts it: “I got a blank space baby And I’ll write your name”.

It is very important however that in modern languages IBM keeps its focus on Node.js – which is a clearer immediate path to revenues, given current enterprise adoption. Swift is a language to turn heads, but Node.js is ready to settle in with.

IBM paid T&E for my trip to Interconnect and is a client. IBM Pivotal and VMware are all clients.

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