Grid gurus launch a start-up

If you want to invest in a grid project, hiring Univa would be like paying Tim Berners-Lee to set up your home page.

The researchers who spawned the idea of grid computing on Monday launched a company to commercialize what so far has been a very academic software project for sharing computing resources.

The Chicago-based company, called Univa, is building its business on the Globus Toolkit, grid software that serves as an important foundation to dozens of supercomputing projects.

As earlier reported, the company will sell support and services for those who want to integrate Globus with their own products or computing operations, said Rich Miller, chief operating officer of the new company.


What's new:
The pioneers of grid computing have formed a new start-up based on a software project--the Globus Toolkit--that's so far been primarily used in academic settings.

Bottom line:
A lot of challenges lie in wait for Univa, but the opportunities are great. Demand is expected to be great among customers seeking to run quick but complicated financial analyses in areas such as telecommunications, financial services and transportation.

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The business foray already has begun. Marketing mucky-mucks in the computing industry have seized the grid for their own use, and the Globus Toolkit has been retrofitted with mainstream business computing technology from IBM and others. So far, though, Globus hasn't reached far beyond research labs and universities.

Some customers could benefit from the technology, though: those seeking to run quick but complicated financial analyses in areas such as telecommunications, financial services and transportation, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

"I think finance is one of the real breakout opportunities. What is a risk-neutral price to buy a security? What is a good quality pricing that will yield maximum profit?" Eunice said. However, he cautioned, grid technology is still in its "very early days."

For those wanting to spend money on a grid project, hiring Univa would be like paying World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee to set up your home page.

Univa's top brass--Chief Executive Steve Tuecke, Chief Scientist Carl Kesselman and Chief Open-Source Strategist Ian Foster--run the Globus project and jointly wrote a seminal 2001 paper, "The Anatomy of the Grid." Foster himself coined the term "grid" in the 1990s.

Who's got the grid?
One challenge the visionaries will face is explaining that vision--not just because it's complicated, but because there are competing definitions promulgated by computing industry heavyweights with colossal marketing budgets.

Ian Foster
Chief open-source
strategist, Univa

Among grid marketing approaches: IBM announced a "World Community Grid" in November that harvests unused processing cycles from anyone with a PC. Oracle adopted the grid label for version 10g of its database software, which actually just splits the database across a small but tightly linked handful of servers. Sun Microsystems' grid vision is a global pool of computing power that people pay to use, in the same manner they pay to pull power off today's electrical grid. And Hewlett-Packard sees grid computing as a component of its Adaptive Enterprise effort to make corporate computing systems more flexible.

The term "grid" is fuzzy enough that Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy poked fun at it Wednesday at Oracle OpenWorld, a trade show overflowing with references to grid computing, including the MegaGrid project from Dell, EMC, Intel and Oracle. "I can abuse the word 'grid' just as easily as anybody else," McNealy joked.

RedMonk analyst James Governor finds Oracle's definition particularly irksome. "I can't see how the 'grid' moniker applies," he said. "Oracle has evidently appropriated 'grid' when it means 'cluster.'"

Univa's definition calls for software that links a pool of computing resources--including processors, storage and networking--that applications can use with some assurance that those resources can be relied upon. "It presents a way by which the application and those resources can talk to each other and agree on what that resource is going to deliver," Tuecke said.

Steve Tuecke
CEO, Univa

A grid can span different organizational boundaries, he added, and eventually, users of the technology will settle on standard plumbing, just as the Web is standardized on Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

The key reason to use grids is to get more bang for the buck--by letting multiple applications share formerly separate resources or by automatically juggling priorities.

Univa has secured early-stage angel funding but expects to need more money from a venture capitalist next year. "The angel money is definitely enough to allow us to get running, but barring amazing success, I would expect going to a Series A financing at some point down the road in 2005," Tuecke said.

Univa's services will be available immediately, but its software product won't ship until 2005, Tuecke said.

Academic roots
The Globus Project has academic roots with dozens of programmers. Kesselman and Foster at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago joined with Tuecke at the University of Southern California to launch the project and build the open-source software. The project adopted a new name, the Globus Alliance, during a 2003 expansion to include the University of Edinburgh, the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology and Northern Illinois University.

This academic background is reflected in the user base. Globus powers academic projects such as the TeraGrid, which links thousands of computers at several university supercomputing sites.

Globus has started picking up business trappings in recent years.

For example, IBM incorporated the Globus Toolkit into its Grid Toolbox. Platform Computing, which has years of experience selling grid-like software for companies with high-performance computing needs, itself has incorporated the project into its Platform Globus Toolkit.

And SAP, the biggest seller of software for tasks such as accounting and inventory management, demonstrated at an October conference the integration of Globus within some of its business software modules.

The academic background is a challenge for a start-up going up against polished salesmen, Eunice said. "That's a problem of all of the grid companies," he said. "They tend to be used to dealing with research labs or with other academics."

But some customers have executives willing to give the nerds free rein, as long as they deliver the goods. Their approach, Eunice said: "Get your rocket scientists with our rocket scientists. Bring us piles of money back and we'll let you talk geek talk for as long as you want."

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