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IBM rents out supercomputer brawn

Big Blue begins a new program to rent out processing power on its own supercomputers by signing up a petrochemical company as a first customer.

IBM has begun a new program to rent out processing power on its own supercomputers, signing up a petrochemical company as a first customer.

Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) is renting more than one-third of its computing capacity from IBM, a move that lets the company deal better with surges in demand for computing services used to find oil and gas deposits. PGS has about 1,000 of its own dual-processor Linux computers interconnected into a single computing resource, but the company is also using about 400 more from IBM, said Chris Semple, manager of developing technologies at PGS.

Eventually, IBM expects other petrochemical companies and life-sciences companies to become customers. The service "is a precursor of what should be a broad push into petroleum industry or life sciences," said David Turek, vice president of IBM's Linux clusters and grid products.

The project is a specific example of IBM's on-demand computing effort and of the larger "utility computing" concept, under which those who need varying amounts of computing power pay for it as they use it. It's intended to be less expensive alternative to buying equipment for moments of peak usage such as end-of-month account balancing or holiday shopping seasons then letting it sit comparatively idle the rest of the time.

As oil prices change, petrochemical companies' technology budgets wax and wane, said John Gillooly, PGS's vice president of western-hemisphere data processing. "It strands us with capacity we don't need," he said.

During peak times, PGS sometimes doesn't have computing power on hand to take on new customers. "Our business model is clipped by costs we have," Gillooly said. Using the IBM computers also lets PGS introduce new data-processing services that require much more processing power.

Seismic processing--using sound waves to create three-dimensional models of the Earth's interior--is one area where clusters of Linux computers caught on early. But Linux clusters is still a relatively immature technology, requiring extensive technological expertise to plan, install, configure and run.

PGS is using IBM servers containing Intel processors, but Big Blue also will rent out Unix servers, Turek said.

Managing hundreds of computers that make up the supercomputing cluster is difficult, but IBM lets PGS handle many of the duties, Turek said.

IBM is subject to the same capital investment issues its customers are trying to avoid by renting out Big Blue's computers, but the company is confident it can make the service profitable by ensuring that the computers don't sit idle. "We're very confident we can drag utilization to a very high number," Turek said.

The overall petrochemical industry has a need for computing clusters with a total of tens of thousands of computers, Turek estimated.