How to Disrupt IBM, Oracle, and VMware: The CloudBees Story

2/29/12Follow @gthuang

Sacha Labourey was one of the early skeptics when it came to cloud computing.

“For me, initially, the cloud was not that interesting. It was actually pretty boring,” he says. That’s in part because he was the chief technology officer of middleware firm JBoss, which in 2006 was bought by open source software giant Red Hat, where “everything was the server, that’s how we live and think,” he says. “That was the church there.”

Since then, cloud computing has gone from a lot of hype to reality. Much of that reality is around what startups and big companies alike are doing to migrate their software applications and data from their own servers to cloud-based systems. Indeed, Labourey’s latest startup, Woburn, MA-based CloudBees, is a testament to how far cloud computing has come—and how some big themes in information technology are playing out.

CloudBees also tells an intriguing (if early) story of a young company looking to disrupt the business of entrenched giants in its field, like Oracle, IBM, VMware, and, yes, Red Hat. Along the way, Labourey, who is CloudBees’ founder and CEO, has learned some important lessons about the evolution of the cloud, the strengths and weaknesses of open source software, the relevance of the Java programming language (versus newer languages like Ruby), and what he calls the “industrialization of IT.”

First, some back-story. Labourey (see photo, left) is a widely respected techie who is based in his native Switzerland and runs a distributed team around the world. He may have been skeptical of the cloud, but by the time he left Red Hat in 2009, the notion of cloud computing as on-demand, remote-access, pay-as-you-go storage and processing power was well established by pioneers like Amazon.com. “I started to think, how can we make something that has those qualities, but is focused on applications?” he says.

That was the genesis of CloudBees, which offers what it calls “platform as a service.” It is a cloud-computing environment where Java developers can build, store, test, and deploy their code, from start to finish. So instead of writing code and then having to get an IT department involved to secure enough machines to do large-scale testing and code management, for example, CloudBees gives companies an all-in-one system to do that. “Platform as a service is a way to simplify all of this and put developers back in charge of their applications,” Labourey says. “They become more efficient, and agility is much better.”

In case you’re wondering why bother—since Web developers these days are already doing everything in the cloud (using platforms like Heroku)—the key here is Java. Java systems pre-date cloud computing. Java runs most big companies’ database and back-end systems. In short, Java still rules—at least in enterprise software.

“All of the cool kids are trying Ruby,” Labourey says. “During the last five to seven years, you were kind of ashamed of it if you were a Java developer. You were not the cool guy anymore. You used to be cool when you were 25 at the university, and now you’re 35, and slightly fat. You make jokes but nobody laughs. That’s a Java developer.”

Yet the long-term future of Java is bright, he says. Ten to 15 years from now, Labourey sees Java-based systems “being the foundation for more and more deployments, and a flurry of languages popping up left and right on top of it.”

For now, CloudBees has grown to about 30 employees, with … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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