Sun aims to sell computing like books, tickets

The firm hopes that bioscientists and geologists will buy computing cycles over the Web just like people buy merchandise online.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--With its new Sun Grid, Sun Microsystems hopes bioscientists and geologists will buy computing cycles over the Web just like people buy tickets online or search for things via Google.

Sun executives flipped on Sun Grid, a large pay-as-you-go computing grid, at company headquarters Tuesday and discussed how grid computing will transform the computing world the way electrical utilities changed how electricity gets bought.

In the Sun Grid, consumers pay $1 for each CPU-hour--an hour's worth of work by a computer's central processing unit--and then run their computing problems on a bank of servers and storage systems owned and maintained by Sun.

Multiple servers, and thus multiple CPUs, are used simultaneously to solve these problems. In a demonstration, Sun Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Schwartz submitted a project to the Sun Grid--graphically rendering data from a protein folding experiment. It took only a few seconds, but cost $12. The 12 hours of CPU time for which Schwartz was billed was consumed by hundreds of machines simultaneously clicking away at the rendering problem for a few seconds each.

"The issue is whether you can convince a data center employee or a data center executive to use a different model," Schwartz said. Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, and oil and gas companies will be early target customers.

Schwartz likened the development of grid computing to how electricity developed, citing the book "Empires of Light." A century ago, only private individuals like J.P. Morgan had electricity in their homes, and they had to hire private electricians. The increased infrastructure, along with standards such as the three-prong plug, helped electricity proliferate.

"There are a lot of grids out there. The water grid, the power grid, and my favorite, the sewer grid," said CEO Scott McNealy.

How do they pay for it?
Sun wouldn't say how much it would cost to build the grid, but executives maintained that it will be profitable.

One advantage Sun claims it will have in this effort is that it makes most of the materials required to erect a grid. Sun owns Solaris, so it doesn't have to buy software or worry about indemnity, Schwartz said.

The grid facilities will also serve as a way to use idle hardware. Sun will load and test software on its servers bound for customers by putting the servers on the Sun Grid first, said McNealy--a testing process known as "burning in" a server. Spare parts and servers produced for warranty purposes will also be hooked to the grid.

"If you have a spare component, you put it on the grid," he said. The grid will first be housed in existing Sun facilities and built up gradually.

"I don't want to be in the bricks-and-mortar industry," McNealy said. "We could go for a first mover advantage and bury the economics of this thing. We've done the modeling and analysis and it's quite profitable."

Sun's public statements underplay lost-opportunity costs, noted Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of Microprocessor Report. It still takes time, employees and money to build a grid, after all.

"Also, where do they draw the line between 'burn in' and 'used'?" Krewell asked.

While Sun will charge $1 per CPU hour now, prices could drop. Schwartz broadly hinted Tuesday that Sun will make an announcement that it will partner with another company to create an exchange for hourly computing power and storage.

Same old Sun
No Sun event would be complete without a Fidel Castro-like claim that Sun is fighting nobly against a malignant, outside force. But this time it wasn't Microsoft, which gave Sun millions in a multipronged alliance last year and was identified as one of the key software providers for the future.

Instead, today's boogeyman is IBM Global Services.

McNealy described the current environment for grid computing as "humankind versus IBM Global Services, and we are kind of the leader of mankind in this aspect." IBM Global Services was identified as an enemy of humanity (and an expensive one at that) at least two other times during the afternoon.

But competition with Microsoft, at least on an intellectual level, continues. Speaking on the digital divide, Schwartz said the biggest problem in the spread of computing is the cost of computers, not bandwidth.

"The digital divide is due to the expense of the client you use to get the bandwidth," Schwartz said.

In January, Microsoft Chair Bill Gates said in an interview that the price of bandwidth, not the cost of access devices, is the factor holding back the spread of computing.

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