With IBM tossing its might behind OpenStack, the open source software used to run cloud-computing installations is in a strong position to become the dominant platform in the industry.

OpenStack Rising

IBM announced Monday that it will make OpenStack the foundation of its cloud services and software. In backing the open source project, Big Blue joined other tech heavyweights behind the technology, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Cisco, Red Hat and Rackspace.

“IBM is the big fish in the sea and for them to make the level of commitment that they did today is a big deal,” said James Staten, analyst for Forrester Research. “That’s the kind of heft OpenStack needs.”

The announcement is likely to send OpenStack’s two main competitors VMware and CloudStack, another open source cloud computing platform, into a battle for second place.

“OpenStack has won the race to become the standard, and it has done it rapidly,” Ann Winblad, a venture capitalist and a managing director of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, told AllThingsD.

IBM And Open Source

IBM has conducted a long love affair with open source software. In 2000, it backed Linux and a year later committed $1 billion to the development of the operating system. IBM’s support helped drive Linux into large organizations and made it a viable competitor against Microsoft as a server platform.

“IBM could have the same impact on OpenStack as it did on the Linux world,” Staten said.

IBM recognized years ago that open source code fit its business strategy a lot better than proprietary technology. The company draws most of its $100 billion in annual revenue from providing IT services. By basing a lot of its own technology on the code from various open source projects, as well as industry standards, IBM is able to work its hardware and software into what enterprise types call “heterogeneous computing environments” — the combinations of patched-together technology from a variety of vendorstypically found in large companies, the segment of the tech market IBM is strongest.

“IBM has really great credibility in the open source community,” Gary Chen, analyst for International Data Corp., said. “They really do understand open source.”

IBM’s First OpenStack Product

IBM followed its announcement with the introduction of its first OpenStack-based product, SmartCloud Orchestrator. SmartCloud is the brand name for IBM’s platform for running cloud installations in customers’ or IBM’s data centers or in a combination of both. Orchestrator is a service customers use to configure the computing, storage and networking resources for cloud applications.

One unanswered question is how IBM will integrate its current SmartCloud code base with OpenStack. In an interview with NetworkWorld, Robert LeBlanc, a senior vice president of software for IBM, waxed mystical in describing how Big Blue will handle the transition.

“We’re on a continual journey,” LeBlanc said. “But we think this is a major step in that journey.”

Cloud Standards

IBM clearly wants to influence OpenStack’s technological direction and efforts to develop industry standards for cloud computing, which is still a relatively immature architecture. IBM has formed a 400-member Cloud Standards Customer Council to help push other tech vendors in a direction favorable to IBM. The company says it has more than 5,000 customers running private clouds on its platform.

IBM is also a major player in standards bodies, such as the World Wide Web Consortium and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

While standards are key to making different technologies work together, they won’t help companies make the cultural changes necessary to adopt cloud computing and make it work. Delivering applications as a Web service dramatically changes the role of IT departments and affects how employees interact with software, too.

Because of its success in professional services, IBM is in a strong position to help companies make those cultural changes, but it won’t be easy. “A lot of enterprises are not ready to hear it,” Staten said.

Nevertheless, the momentum in the tech industry is behind cloud computing. The public cloud service market alone is expected to grow 18.5% this year to $131 billion worldwide.

With that much money on the table, IBM plans to become a major player in the market and is betting that OpenStack can help it achieve that goal.

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