IBM SoftLayer woos startups running Amazon Web Services, Rackspace

IBM’s cloud team has been on a mission to prove to startups that its SoftLayer infrastructure and BlueMix platform as a service are viable, economical options to Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and others.

Toward that end, [company]IBM[/company] hosted a [email protected] event in San Francisco this week to strut its stuff in the hotbed of startups. And it’s touting a couple customer wins as proof points for SoftLayer momentum: MutualMind, which helps businesses monitor customers’ social networking interactions, and Vivocha, a customer engagement SaaS product.

The appeal of bare metal

Addison, Texas–based MutualMind is moving the bulk of its workloads to SoftLayer from AWS and [company]Rackspace[/company], said CEO Babar Bhatti. A major reason was SoftLayer’s flexibility in providing both bare metal servers for I/O intensive workloads and cloud capabilities, with better service than the incumbent providers.

Vivocha, another hand-picked IBM case study, moved part of its service — batch data processing and CPU-intensive tasks — from AWS to Bluemix, said Federico Pinna, co-founder and CTO. But his company, like many, will use more than one cloud — parts of Vivocha’s work are still on AWS and [company]Microsoft[/company] Azure. Pinna liked how Bluemix lets his company scale fast and release iterations and new features very quickly and supports all the key Node.js and MongoDB technologies.

Going farther afield I found a few other non-reference account startups moving to [company]SoftLayer[/company] at least in part. One big selling point is that SoftLayer offers free private networking across all its data centers, which is unique, according to [company]Server Density[/company] CEO David Mytton. That can result in significant savings for growing companies.

GoCardless, a London-based online payment company,  moved from Rackspace to SoftLayer early this year, said CTO Harry Marr. Rackspace, he said, didn’t give his company control over virtual machine placement and as a result his VMs often ended up on the same physical servers, which led to problems. “Our infrastructure was built to handle partial failure, but rather than losing the odd server here and there, we’d often lose a whole cluster at once.”

The company now runs almost entirely on SoftLayer’s bare metal boxes. “For the same overall cost we’re able to handle many times more load than previously. We’ve also to hugely stepped up our reliability — we haven’t had a single outage caused by infrastructure since the migration,” he said. There have been hiccups — a few times GoCardless needed more capacity and SoftLayer could not provide the needed hard drives or RAM — but overall, he is happy with the move.

Amazon’s hold on startups will be tough to break

This handful of examples aside, IBM has a long row to hoe to wean significant numbers of startups off of AWS and Rackspace.  [company]Amazon[/company], in particular, grew with the startups that flocked to it for the last seven years, and for every IBM case study, AWS probably has two dozen. And AWS is nothing if not fast. Expect a raft of new services to debut at AWS Re:Invent in November.

But AWS doesn’t have the field to itself anymore. It faces well-funded competitors in [company]Google[/company] and Microsoft and a raft of other legacy IT players in IBM, HP and others, all of which are pushing their own clouds as more enterprise-friendly than the public cloud alternatives.

Google is clearly willing to wield Amazon’s tools against it — last week it said it would give qualified startups $100,000 in free Google Cloud resources. (AWS typically offers $20,000.)

But IBM Softlayer does have its advantages, including the aforementioned hybrid infrastructure, a mature set of products and credibility in running large-scale workloads, Mytton said. He noted that WhatsApp ran on SoftLayer before Facebook acquired it — that’s no small feat.

But IBM also needs to keep proving that its cloud infrastructure is not a sideline or a way to use up other IBM IP assets.

For more on IBM SoftLayer’s cloud strategy, check out SoftLayer CEO Lance Crosby’s talk at Structure 2014, below.