Tech Industry

Grids get down to business

Two efforts aim to expand the use of grid computing beyond academia and into the business realm.

Two initiatives in the coming weeks will seek to make computing grids, where far-flung computers act as a single machine, more widespread in the business world.

In May, a consortium of vendors called the Enterprise Grid Alliance plans to release its first recommendations for making grids more palatable to businesses, CNET News.com has learned.

The guidelines from the EGA, which was formed one year ago to promote grid computing in business, will address a range of technical issues, from security to a utilitylike pricing system for buying computing power in industry-standard increments.

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What's new:
In the coming weeks, the Enterprise Grid Alliance consortium will release technical recommendations for using grids in business. And this week, the open-source Globus Toolkit 4 for writing grid applications will be released.

Bottom line:
These efforts are attempts to create industry standards, which experts believe are important steps to making the hazy notion of grid computing widespread.

More stories on grid computing

At the end of this week, a consortium of grid computing researchers and corporations called the Globus Alliance plans to release the Globus Toolkit 4.0 for writing applications that run on several, disparate machines.

The Globus tools and the EGA technical recommendations aim to address computing tasks suited to the business realm rather than academia, where computing grids have been used for years. Perhaps more significantly, these efforts seek to establish industrywide grid standards, something experts say is still lacking.

"The challenge is getting the ideas out of the lab and into commercial use," said Steve Tuecke, CEO of Univa, which Tuecke founded with a group of grid computing luminaries in December last year to build commercial systems around the Globus Toolkit. "Being used just in science isn't going to cut it."

The grid computing industry today is roughly at the same stage the Internet was about 10 years ago, experts say. Before commercial customers can share their computing resources more effectively across widespread networks, they need a wide variety of standardized products.

Today, most examples of grid computing are done using vendor-specific tools within a single company, said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata.

"We're in the stage of development where you build a grid, you don't buy it, because these are all tools," Eunice said. "It's commercially viable, but you still have to put a lot of things together."

The exact definition of computing grids is hazy, though people typically use the term to describe a network where many individual computers coordinate their work, like a well-organized ant colony.

Today, most people associate grid computing with futuristic scenarios, such as the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, which is tapping unused desktop PC processing to search for extraterrestrial life.

But some organizations are pushing to make the grid appropriate for much more mundane matters, such as crunching corporate data.

The Globus Toolkit 4, for example, is designed to make it easier to build an application that taps into computing resources--such as servers, storage and databases--that are spread out across a network. The open-source Globus software uses a number of existing specifications, notably Web services.

Using the software, corporate customers will be able to make better use of their existing computing resources, according to Globus Alliance executives. Often, servers or databases are substantially underused because these resources are usually purchased to serve one specific application, rather than be shared by many.

The EGA, meanwhile, has a broader mission. The group's multiyear plan is to accelerate usage of grid computing, help define where it is effective, and promote standards.

"There aren't many people taking the big picture on grid," said Peter Ffoulkes, director of marketing of high-performance and technical computing at Sun Microsystems, which is a member of the EGA. "This isn't some academic group that's trying to boil the ocean."

"Shared resources"
Early examples show that grids are a compelling way to save money on hardware, though they're still for the technologically adventurous.

Financial services company Wachovia, for instance, used grid software from specialized provider DataSynapse to host a new set of corporate banking applications.

Rather than have a dedicated set of servers, the applications seek out unused computing power from financial traders' workstations. If a machine is not used for a certain amount of time, the grid server software will offload a job to it. Once the workstation is used again, the job is moved to another free machine.

The set-up allowed Wachovia to avoid buying costly new hardware for these services, said Robert Ortega, vice president of architecture and engineering at Wachovia. The company was able to avoid buying eight Sun Fire 15K servers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each and require dedicated staff to maintain.

"We are now leveraging the grid platform in scenarios that would have been considered traditional transaction processing, such as creating a trade or retrieving market data," Ortega said.

Ortega noted a few challenges for grid computing, such as software licensing schemes designed for software that runs on a single machine.

Other challenges include the lack of grid-ready packaged applications and the lack of common charge-back methods for pricing computing services.

Assurances of security and reliability of computing grids are also required before people will be willing to share the servers and storage owned by an individual company department.

Indeed, some of the biggest challenges facing the adoption of grids have more to do with people. Unlike academia, departments within large corporations are not accustomed to sharing their hardware resources or data with other groups.

"People don't want to share," said Wolfgang Gentzsch, managing director of MCNC, a nonprofit that's built a large grid serving governments, universities and others in North Carolina. Gentzsch led Sun's grid engineering efforts until last year.

"It's almost like we know how to handle the technology," said Gentzsch. "But the cultural issues, that's a big change."