Two simple reasons IBM loves free software

IBM announced a new business relationship with Docker — a mega-hot, well-funded startup that developers all over the world are going crazy over.

Docker’s technology, at its essence, lets developers write code once and take it anywhere.

In other words, you write an application on your laptop, wrap it up in a Docker container, and it’ll run the exact same way on any other computer or server, including, say, the IBM Cloud, where you can buy tremendous amounts of computing capacity with the swipe of a credit card. It may sound simple, but it actually makes life a lot easier for developers.

A big part of this deal is that IBM is delivering a new IBM Containers service, based on Docker’s core technology, that helps customers make and manage these software containers.

“That’s a big deal, because they trust us,” says IBM VP of Cloud Architecture and Technology Dr. Angel Diaz. After all, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, or so the old system administrator saying goes. And IBM recently reported that it’s grown its overall cloud business 60% year-over-year to over $7 billion.

For IBM, its love of Docker is part of a larger philosophy: Docker’s main container technology is open source, meaning any developer anywhere can download the source code for free and put it to work however they want to.

Diaz is quick to remind people that IBM has a long history of boosting open source efforts, including leading the 1999 creation of the Apache Software Foundation, the non-profit that oversees the development of a lot of high-profile open source projects, including Apache Hadoop and Apache Spark.

To hear Diaz tell it, supporting open software is a simple business matter for IBM, for two reasons:

  1. Hiring — For a technology to really explode, you need lots of people who know how to use it. For example, since Docker containers are free and open source, this leads to a lot of college grads and experienced developers alike having the opportunity to get really familiar with it. “The world isn’t Silicon Valley,” Diaz says, and software that’s available for free has an attendant rise in the number of experts in the world.
  2. Less lock-In — Amazon Web Services, for example, has literally dozens of products and services that developers can build into their cloud apps, from databases to elastic scaling. The problem is that if you decide Amazon Web Services isn’t for you, you may have to spend a lot of time and money spent getting it working again with another vendor’s set of services. “Nothing wrong with that if you love Amazon,” Diaz says, but developers prefer having a choice. “No application is an island.”

This makes a lot of sense if you understand IBM’s business as selling expertise and consulting services. Big organizations hire IBM to solve specific problems. IBM doesn’t necessarily need to make all the technology that goes into solving those problems, as long as it has plenty of available technology to draw from and people who understand it.

Diaz says that getting more expert developers working on a platform that fully supports their design choices is good news for IBM. And IBM’s customers reap the benefits of a happier development team, moving faster and delivering more code.

Plus, IBM offers private cloud services (basically, a more efficient data center that you run yourself), and it’s easy to push applications across the public and private clouds in what the industry has dubbed “hybrid cloud.”

It’s a strategy that’s apparently working — Diaz claims that 8,000 people register for IBM’s BlueMix cloud every week, and a recent study found that developers loved BlueMix out of all the options available.

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