Can HP Actually Deliver on its Grand Cloud Vision?

Yesterday, HP (s hpq) CEO Leo Apotheker laid out his vision for the company’s cloud computing future, but given HP’s all-but-non-existent cloud strategy until this point, it’s difficult to believe the company can be a real competitor until it actually starts to deliver what Apotheker is promising. In a nutshell, Apotheker described a future where HP customers can use their HP devices — from tablets to PCs servers — to access a wide suite of HP cloud services built atop HP’s own cloud infrastructure. For businesses, this could mean everything from IaaS to PaaS to SaaS, public, private or hybrid. It all sounds great, only HP doesn’t have a cloud computing track record to suggest it’s actually capable of pulling this off in a meaningful manner.

It’s not that HP doesn’t have a cloud business, it’s just that the business is somewhat less than compelling. As my colleague Stacey pointed out upon the launch of a new lineup of HP cloud software in January, it wasn’t so much new as it was a throwback to 2009. Essentially, HP has some cloud hardware and management software, as well as some hosted cloud services. It’s very reminiscent of IBM’s arguably lackluster cloud portfolio, and just seems like an infrastructure vendor tweaking its existing products to suit a cloud-hungry customer base without having any cloud in its DNA. It’s all very HP-centric in terms of hardware and software, even to the degree it encompasses external resources, and doesn’t yet address the onslaught of SaaS applications or, really, the push toward platform as a service (PaaS) that seeks to change the way applications are written and consume resources. And HP’s reliance on its BladeSystem Matrix converged infrastructure offering raises concerns akin to those raised when Oracle (s orcl) announced its Exalogic-centric cloud strategy.

IBM (s ibm) might actually have HP edged out in the cloud innovation department with its focus on interesting workloads (e.g., analytics via Hadoop as a service) and specific industries. I would argue that fellow “big four” systems management vendor CA (s ca) also has a more forward-thinking cloud computing strategy (sub req’d) in place with its very service-oriented and location-dependent approach to helping customers choose and manage IT options. So does Dell (s dell), which is fast becoming much more than a simple server vendor. Certainly, smaller software vendors such as VMware (s vmw) (sub req’d) and Red Hat (s rht) are far ahead of HP in terms of cloud vision, as are a number of startups. At this point, there’s a lot more to cloud software than just automated server provisioning and some support for Amazon Web Services (s amzn) instances. And, speaking of AWS, HP is a long way off of the cutting edge of public cloud services being sold by providers like AWS and others, including Microsoft (s msft).

So, what’s to make anyone think that, when Leo Apotheker’s cloud vision actually comes to fruition, that it will be anything other than two years behind the curve? Details were few, so there aren’t many specific points to highlight as particularly promising or troubling, but Apotheker did mention WebOS, which could prove a questionable point of reliance. I understand that HP has to push the Palm-created OS, but I’m not aware of any evidence that even enterprise users will abandon their iOS or Android devices for HP-built WebOS devices anytime soon. To this end, others in the cloud world already are building in support for these platforms. Otherwise, I just have a general feeling of disbelief that in a cloud world advancing so fast in terms of openness, portability and capabilities, many companies will invest in a cloud strategy that’s HP up and down the stack; there’s just too much innovation going on elsewhere.

That being said, HP definitely has its plans in order in terms of making hay from its Vertica acquisition. Apotheker said the company will sell the database as a standalone software product, as well as part of an integrated analytics appliance. As I noted last week while discussing ParAccel’s value to a storage or server vendor, high-end analytics appliances are big business — just ask Oracle, EMC(s emc), IBM and Teradata (s tdc) — and HP now has all the parts needed to capitalize on that trend. It’s far better suited to play in the big data space, which is still heavily dependent on big infrastructure and enterprise software sales, than it is in cloud computing.

To HP’s credit, though, under Apotheker, it least appears to have a clear, and accurate, picture of what it needs to do to compete in an IT market that has been overtaken by cloud computing. Its big challenge will be in actually delivering, and in doing so in a timely manner. The collection of available cloud services and technologies are moving fast, and HP has to get in the game while its vision is still fresh, and it has to build it so it’s flexible enough to evolve. It can’t bask in the glow of its big announcement for too long, either, because the clock is already ticking.

Image courtesy of Peter Jordan.