Hardware Today: Grid Computing Means Business

by Drew Robb

Will 2005 be the year grids complete their evolution from the ivory tower to the boardroom? The major OEMs seem to think so and are investing heavily in grid agendas.

Grid computing has been the province of academia, government, and science labs for most of its young life. According to some experts, however, it has quietly, albeit steadily, picked up a fan base in the commercial sector. Further, it is expected to become an integral part of the technology landscape in the near future.

"We are on the brink of an explosion in the use of grid technologies," says Dr. Carl Kesselman, who leads USC/Information Sciences Institute's grid technologies center, and was one of the founders of the Globus Project. "Increased deployment of grid technologies in the commercial sector will break the traditional silos that characterize current infrastructure deployments."

Wise to this trend, IBM, Dell, Sun, and other major hardware vendors are investing heavily in grid agendas. IBM, for example, is all over prime time TV with its ads for Blue Gene, a number-crunching service that offers grid-based supercomputing on demand.

"The real business value of the grid lies in the ability to lash together disparate and widely dispersed computing and data resources across an organization in new ways." — Al Bunshaft, vice president of grid sales at IBM

"The movement of grids to commercial enterprises is similar to the way the Internet moved from the research and academic circles to the business world in the nineties," says Al Bunshaft, vice president of grid sales at IBM. "Our commercial grid customers include Charles Schwab, Hewitt, RBC Insurance, Royal Dutch Shell, Jaguar/Land Rover, and Nippon Life Insurance Group."

IBM is now very much a part of the grid community. Big Blue believes grids represent the latest evolution of distributed computing, with virtualization being the main driving force. The company is a member of the Global Grid Forum, the worldwide standards-making body for grid, and the Globus Consortium, which develops the Globus toolkit — an open source toolkit for application developers. The Globus Consortium has been particularly active in developing and spreading grid technologies to the enterprise.

Supercomputing Collaboration

People understandably think of grid computing as a way to aggregate the performance of many systems to build a virtual supercomputer. The World Community Grid, for example, allows individuals to donate unused processing power to scientific problems. More than 100,000 devices have participated in this grid since it launched in December 2004. Computer users have contributed more than 8,000 CPU years of processing power to a human protein folding research project. This highlights the inherent value of a grid — solving classes of problems that could never be addressed any other way, even with the largest supercomputers.

"Grid computing is used to increase the amount of processing power that can be applied to a single or a small number of tasks," says Dan Kusnetzky, program vice president, system software, Enterprise Computing Group at IDC. "It is also utilized to increase the amount of storage available to a single or a small number of tasks, provide higher levels of scalability or reliability for a number of tasks, and optimize the use of a pool of computing resources."

Many see the concept of optimization as broadening the horizons of grid computing. After all, not every business requires supercomputing-class processing power. So what's the value of a grid? It turns out that information grids are a smart way to link together information located in multiple locations.

In a recent project with Germany-based Audi, for example, IBM's WebSphere Information Integrator was used in tandem with an engineering analysis application from MSC Software to manage design and analysis information across Audi in Germany and its subsidiary SEAT in Italy.

"Information grids like this will make designers more productive, facilitate collaboration among partners, and give researchers insights into information that were otherwise impossible," says Bunshaft

Yet another area where grids might exert a telling impact is in application optimization. This touches the way organizations deploy applications and use their hardware infrastructure: Instead of applications being tightly coupled to dedicated hardware, a grid can unpin them from specific hardware, making decisions at runtime as to where it's most efficient to run the application. This usage of grids has the potential to knock out the tradition of low server utilization rates, as it makes untapped capacity available on demand.

"The real business value of the grid lies in the ability to lash together disparate and widely dispersed computing and data resources across an organization in new ways," says Bunshaft. "Companies can harness these previously untapped assets to accelerate business, analytical, and scientific processes; improve collaboration; and provide employees on-demand access to vast IT resources."

>> Grid Options

Vendor Choices

The early days of grids are best characterized as being the province of a few dedicated techies evolving ways and means of hooking up computers to harness their collective power. Now that the industry is beyond the pioneering phase, the big boys are embracing the technology and have come up with packages and ways to simplify grid deployments. In some cases you can buy capacity on tap, or you can purchase the infrastructure and build your own in-house grid.

Dell, for example, appears to be focusing on the cluster model as a way to bring grids to those seeking to solve small and medium computations. The wisdom of this decision is illustrated by the semi-annual Top500 Supercomputing list. No longer do large SMP-based supercomputing architectures dominate the rankings. Instead, clusters now account for more than two-thirds of entries. Dell, therefore, sees grids as a means of spanning across multiple high-performance computing (HPC) clusters to create a larger pool of available resources. Dell has already come to market with a combination of PowerEdge servers and Platform Computing's Enterprise Grid Solution. Its customers include the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) and the University of Liverpool.

In addition, Dell is a partner in Project MegaGrid. Dell, EMC, and Oracle partnered to form Project MegaGrid in an effort to develop a standards-based approach to building and deploying an enterprise grid infrastructure that outperforms traditional big iron solutions at a fraction of the cost. Project MegaGrid combines technology from multiple vendors into a single set of deployment best practices. Its goal is to remove the customer integration burden and lower the cost of grids.

"The dominant trend in our industry continues to be standardization of component technologies, and the adoption of the scale-out model," says Reza Rooholamini, director, Enterprise Solutions Engineering, at Dell. "Grids are now a beneficiary of this trend."

Dell is not the only systems vendor at the grid party. Sun Microsystems was quick to grasp the potential of grid computing. Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 servers, Network Systems Group at Sun, told ServerWatch that the company is offering a $1 per CPU per hour pay-per-use or $1 per GB per month for storage. Regional Sun Grid centers are already live in Virginia, New Jersey, and London. Customers include the Bank of Montreal, Idaho National Laboratories, and Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

"Some customers pay us for 'peaking computation' that goes beyond their in-house capabilities," says Lovell. "It's like the car rental business. They transfer the data over the network to our data center."

In addition to pay-per-use, Sun is offering rack-mounted Sun Fire servers in grid configurations that the customer can tailor to a specific environment. The Sun Fire V20z, for example, has been clustered into grids in excess of 2,000 servers at some universities.

"When you are connecting rackmount servers together, the latency of Ethernet doesn't help in number crunching," says Lovell. "Therefore, we are seeing more of a trend to InfiniBand."

IBM delivers yet another option. It began offering "Deep Computing Capacity on Demand" in 2003. This grid infrastructure delivers capacity in small or large increments when the customer requires it. Big Blue currently has four centers in operation in North America and Europe running Intel, AMD, POWER, and Blue Gene capacity available for rent by the CPU hour.

Customers are very interested in this model as a way to deal with peak usage requirements or to limit the scale of their internal IT resources," says Bunshaft. "We have seen strong interest in this utility model from the oil and gas industry, the financial services sector, the pharmaceutical/healthcare segment, and also the media and entertainment industry. I expect this approach to grow dramatically over time."

Potential Brings Problems

While most experts appreciate the vast potential of the technology, they are aware of the roadblocks littering the path to broad adoption. The current structure of software licensing, in particular, may prove insurmountable: i.e., how exactly do you license software running randomly for short or long periods on a few or many computers out of an 8000-node network?

"It is cost-prohibitive to expect that customers will have application licenses for all of the possible systems across the enterprise," says Bunshaft. "New software licensing methods have to be developed to support grid computing."

Beyond licensing, the technology is still perceived as fringe or leading edge. To transition to the mainstream, it has to be fully secure and must develop a business model that works in the real world.

"We have to provide good solutions for isolation, accounting, and privacy in order to minimize the risk," says Olle Mulmo of Stockholm, Sweden, a Security Area Director for the Global Grid Forum. "Eventually, private sector parties will be able to make use of each other's resources under market-driven supply and demand conditions. But people will only adopt what they trust."

This article was originally published on Monday May 23rd 2005
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