Grid computing luring mainstream backers

Grid computing to date has largely been the terrain of academics and start-ups. But established tech companies are now nudging the concept toward the mainstream business world.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Is grid computing in your company's future?

During the past 10 years, academics and start-ups have been connecting numerous servers to create collective supercomputers capable of performing taxing calculations such as global climate modeling.

IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and others this week jumped on the bandwagon with plans to bring the concept toward the mainstream business world. Despite their endorsements, they may find it hard to convince corporate buyers to invest in a technology that is viewed as allowing outsiders access to their servers.

Sun got an early jump on grids when it acquired software maker Gridware in 2000. The pace picked up last August, when IBM launched its effort to reconfigure grid computing for businesses and appointed strategy guru Irving Wladawsky-Berger to lead the effort.

But this week's Global Grid Forum in Toronto locked grids into the business computing future. The meeting triggered moves by IBM, Sun and Microsoft to marry grids with Web services, a technology that lets business transactions run atop servers scattered all over the Internet.

The technology companies pushing the concept are expecting to offer services such as always-available computing power--eventually. For now, their early endorsement is an attempt to gain the loyalty of as many programmers as possible, said D.H. Brown analyst Tony Iams.

"It's a huge race for mind share. The frontrunners are IBM, Sun and Microsoft," Iams said.

For companies that sell hardware, such as IBM and Sun, the grid concept holds additional appeal: the possibility of selling more servers. Both companies are looking to boost hardware sales.

Gartner analyst Robert Batchelder says that grid computing is much more than the latest fad. Stimulated by the Internet, computing is undergoing a profound transition into its third wave of evolution.

see commentary

Grid computing is a powerful concept, its chief appeal being the ability to make sure all of a server's computing power is used. Today, computers spend much of their time sitting idle, as a processor waits for data to crunch. In a grid world, the idle time of hundreds or thousands of servers could be harnessed and rented out to anyone who needed a massive infusion of processing power.

For example, the computing capacity of a large American bank may be largely unused overnight. If connected to a grid, that dormant power could be tapped by an unrelated company on the other side of the globe for a variety of tasks. In return, the bank might be given access to extra capacity during its peak hours.

But like the nascent Web services movement, grids as a business concept are more buzzword than business. Before grids become a reality for processing credit card numbers, for example, companies must create products and services using the technology. In addition, companies will have to tackle cultural and legal concerns about sharing their servers.

Microsoft predicted that Web services would be more significant than the Web browser, but it now acknowledges that it spoke a bit too soon--at least in consumer Web services.

"The reason grid computing is getting so much noise is that it's a fascinating idea," Iams said. "There's something very appealing about using all these spare (CPU) cycles and tying all the computers together on the Internet to solve difficult problems."

But the hard reality is that much business software, such as large databases, is poorly matched to grids. "There is definitely a gap here between expectations and reality," he said.

Even though Web services and grid computing aren't yet a reality, there's no denying the powerful forces aligned behind the movements.

Microsoft signs up
On Wednesday, Microsoft indicated it doesn't want to be left behind as the grid bandwagon gets moving.

Microsoft has dipped its toes into the grid world before, but the software giant decided to back one of the key grid organizations, the Globus Project, whose Globus Toolkit software lets organizations set up grids and manage grid jobs.

Microsoft said Wednesday that it's funding Globus with $1 million to make sure the toolkit runs on Windows XP and on its .Net Web services software infrastructure. While $1 million isn't much to Microsoft, the support is interesting given that the toolkit is an open-source project--and the shared-software philosophy is one that Microsoft has historically loathed.

"This will help the toolkit be more rapidly and widely adopted beyond the research community," said Carl Kesselman, a seminal grid thinker, Globus leader and director of the Center for Grid Technologies at the University of Southern California.

IBM, though--with respected research groups and a product line broader than any other computing company--is probably more significant in the grid game.

Grids hold the promise of getting more use out of a given amount of hardware, but Sam Palmisano, IBM's soon-to-be CEO, predicts that there still will be demand for servers, storage, software and services to tie it all together.

IBM said Wednesday that it would build grid abilities into its WebSphere e-commerce software, its Tivoli management software, and its servers and storage systems.

One key standard in the works is the Open Grid Services Architecture (OGSA), a method of marrying Web services technology to grid technology described in a paper written by the Globus leaders and IBM.

Version 3.0 of the Globus Toolkit will support OGSA, Globus has said, and IBM said WebSphere will provide a foundation for running programs using the OGSA standard, IBM said.

On the hardware front, all IBM servers will come with the Globus Toolkit. And storage systems using the iSCSI standard for transferring storage information over Internet Protocol (IP) networks will work within grids.

Finally, IBM's much-envied Global Services division will offer consulting help to plan, install, run and manage grids. IBM's top management believes grids are the natural evolution of computing.

"The grid is the ultimate method whereby you can establish this seamless, open standard" computing model, Palmisano said Wednesday in a speech at IBM's PartnerWorld 2002 in San Francisco. "This computing model will not be an evolution from the client-server base."

The need for grids partly comes from increasing Web traffic, Palmisano said. Most people log on to the Web with PCs and manually navigate. In the future, the number of access devices will explode. In addition, Web sites and databases will be increasingly interlinked, allowing consumers to switch from one database to another quickly.

To be able to accommodate these customers, companies will have to fortify their back-end computing capabilities--the sort of thing that led to a financial crisis for many start-ups--or rent grid time.

Others are in the game as well.

Platform Computing, which has sold its in-house grid computing software for years for calculation jobs such as chip design or pharmaceutical research, has embraced the Globus Toolkit and plans to sell it along with services. Platform got a boost when Compaq Computer announced it would use its software.

Platform on Tuesday announced the beta, or test, version of its Globus Toolkit product.

One of the early grid companies, Entropia, also is backing Globus.

And as expected, Avaki, which sells grid software, submitted a proposal called the Secure Grid Naming Protocol at the Global Grid Forum to standardize how files and data are stored on grids.

HP also has a business focus on grids with its planetary computing research.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.