According to an analyst with Forrester Research, it's HP's utility data center offerings by a nose, with IBM on its heels, and Sun Microsystems running a distant third.
Only three systems vendors -- HP, IBM, and Sun -- have the products, services, and expertise needed to play the role of an on-demand, or "organic IT" contractor, said Frank Gillett, principal analyst, infrastructure, for Forrester Research.
"On demand (computing) is fundamentally about driving your business processes beyond vertical silos, to flipping them on their side and looking horizontally at all the opportunities to link" up applications, he said. "It's about separating the application layer from the operating system layer."
Tech research firm Gartner describes on-demand as the trend to deploy software and middleware integration, open standards, virtualization and autonomic (or self-healing) computing systems in order to deliver a "real-time enterprise" for customers.
HP's on-demand version is its Utility Data Center , where it offers utility-like computing services that are self-adapting, self-healing and policy-driven -- meaning computing power allocation and management are automated. In addition, HP's UDC open system supports multiple hardware vendors and operating systems, giving customers more flexibility.
Sun's version incorporates its N1 architecture initiative, which deploys similar components to help customers manage groups of computers and networks as a single system.
Gillett said his research methodology gives HP a small lead over IBM in delivering on the on demand promise because HP has already shipped products for server provisioning and storage virtualization.
Although HP has a better product road map right now, it "must battle against IBM's stronger market presence -- and prepare for IBM to catch up by 2004," Gillett wrote in an April 11th research note.
IBM's top-to-bottom commitment to an "on demand operating environment" (including products slated for later this year), will make it the standard bearer for on-demand, Gillett said.
But right now, IBM suffers from a complex, futuristic vision that has led it to neglect server provisioning, Gillett noted, a technology the Forrester believes will have immediate impact -- and is a critical facet of organic IT services in a data center.
Sun, meanwhile, has enough products and vision to climb into Forrester's Organic IT contractor competition that Gillett tracks. But to get to the leaders category, "Sun must swallow its Solaris pride and put together an offering that is credible in mainstream heterogeneous IT shops -- while overcoming deficiencies in management software and professional services."
Sun's issue, Gillette told internetnews.com , is "will N1 be something that appeals to any company or only for Sun customers?" If Sun wants to succeed in the larger world, he continued, it will need more than its proprietary Solaris-based machines, such as offering Linux and Windows operating systems with on-demand, utility computing services.
"Sun is close enough, but will it be a credible source of data center automation for (customers) that have lots of Windows?" Gillett said. "Right now, that doesn't seem likely. Maybe they'll figure out how to do that and take care of Solaris as well."
Tom Bittman, lead IBM analyst for Gartner, recently noted that IBM's on-demand strategy will take a decade to be fully realized. In the meantime, rival vendors will do their best to carve into IBM's position in key on-demand segments such as software, hardware and global services.
"IS managers should watch IBM's on demand story unfold during 2003 and early 2004," wrote Bittman in a note entitled "Can IBM's 'On Demand' Strategy Build Real-Time Enterprises."
"If it evolves into a truly business-transforming vision of the real-time enterprise, and if IBM begins to deliver on the vision, then it could help lead the business reputation of IT 'back from the abyss' (as well as dynamically shift IBM's business model toward business consulting and enterprise software leadership)."
However, he added, if IBM is only able to deliver on the "cheaper IT for e-business" portion of the vision, its "PwC Consulting acquisition will have been a failure."
IBM has the right vision and the right raw materials, Bittman said. "Execution is now key."
And, as in politics, a lot can change in a year. v HP has more product in the field that customers can go buy for now, said Forrester's Gillett. But it provides no entry level offerings for customers. "It takes a million bucks" for a customer to get into an HP utility data center, he said.
"Between IBM's acquisition and new products, we believe IBM will close the gap with HP within a year," Gillett added. "Then we will have a tight game."