Exclusive: IBM's Test Cloud Opens to Public Beta

[qi:gigaom_icon_cloud-computing] IBM (s ibm) tomorrow is expected to open its test and development cloud to a public beta after serving about 600 customers in a private beta. Some in the cloud community were disappointed when Big Blue announced plans for the test and development cloud in June but provided no time table for the public beta and the general availability of the product. But now we know that the public beta of IBM’s Smart Business Develop and Test Cloud, which uses tools from its Rational software, will open Thursday at 2 p.m. PDT, allowing anyone to take those virtual machines for a spin for free.  The general availability will be sometime early next year.

That’s promising news as the company inches to the cloud, and better news is on the way. In a conversation this week with Maria Azua, VP, Cloud Computing Enablement, Enterprise Initiatives at IBM, I learned that the company plans to eventually launch a secure private cloud offering similar to those already offered by Savvis or Amazon’s Web Services. Big Blue also affirmed its plans to release special-purpose clouds for certain workloads built on specialized hardware, as well as platforms built on DB2 and WebSphere.

Azua told me that IBM learned some valuable lessons as it translated its Rational software to work in the cloud. First, it had to adjust the software to scale out on multiple virtual machines rather than scale upon many dedicated servers. That process took about six months, and IBM now has two sets of tools, with one designed to run entirely in the cloud and another to run on desktops to build software that can then be tested in the cloud. Azua said running an application that hasn’t been optimized for the cloud, “Can help a customer get bigger, better and faster, and pay less for a mess, but it’s still a mess.” IBM will add other middleware that’s optimized for its cloud and other clouds in the coming months.

Another lesson was that once customers started getting involved in the private beta, they wanted bigger virtual machines, which surprised the IBMers. Azua said customers wanted composite images of their applications that they could see across all clouds they might be running. They also wanted openness, which Azua defined as using open APIs developed in some standards body, rather than by a single company, an open OS and open hypervisors.

With this public beta IBM says it will also offer telephone support for its customers in the IBM cloud, rather than an online form, email or a web notification system. That level of handholding will likely prove popular with enterprise users who may have experienced problems with other cloud providers, only to be directed to a web-based status log and a company blog post.

Beyond the test and development cloud and an announced data analytic cloud that will take advantage of IBM’s acquisition of SPSS, Azua mentioned that IBM will soon offer a cloud that addresses the enterprise need for a virtual private cloud. Such clouds provide secure access for data as it travels from a corporate office up to the cloud over the public Internet and then secures the data in the multi-tenant environment of the cloud. “It won’t be as simple as a cloud with a VPN stuck in front of it,” said Azua. That’s close to what Amazon (s amzn) announced this summer, although the internal security the online retailer offers is unknown. However, it’s becoming clear that IBM isn’t going to cede the cloud to the first movers if it can help it.