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Meeting of the minds in next-gen Internet

Two high-profile movements to harness the power of the global network of computers will start pooling their resources next week at the Global Grid Forum in Toronto.

Two high-profile movements to harness the power of the global network of computers will start pooling their resources next week as academia's "grid" computing initiative meets the Web services trend that's sweeping business computing.

see special report: Web services: The new buzz

Ultimately, cooperation between the two groups could mean improvements in areas as diverse as genetics research and credit card billing.

At the Global Grid Forum in Toronto, business-computing and Web services heavyweights IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard will converge with the academic powers that spawned the grid concept, which connects servers and storage systems into a worldwide pool of computing power.

Both groups have been working on parallel visions for harnessing the power of networked computers. Merging the two movements will be culturally and technologically complicated, but the overall cause stands to benefit from the substantial progress made by each group so far.

A key force unifying the two worlds is IBM, which initiated its grid efforts in 2001 and named one of its top strategists, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, to lead the effort. Wladawsky-Berger will deliver the keynote address at the forum.

IBM and top grid thinkers from academia have released a draft paper describing the unification of the two worlds.

"The same notions that came out of the high-performance technical computing community could be put into place for other purposes such as support of e-business and Web services," said IDC analyst Jean Bozman. But with Web services technology still in its infancy, "this is building the foundations of the house."

With business and technical computing experts trying to work together, there are cultural as well as technical challenges in making the vision a reality. "Those are people who aren't used to working together. They're separate communities," Bozman said.

The Web services camp, whipped into frenzied activity by Microsoft's .Net movement, wants business processes to take place on a host of interconnected servers, likely from different companies. An online order for a plane ticket could invoke another Web service for billing a credit card, another for filing an expense reimbursement report, and another for expanding the geographical coverage of the traveler's mobile phone service.

Meanwhile, grid work has grown out of the supercomputing movement, with regional projects cropping up all over. Grids pool computing resources so that numerous computers can share work, typically jobs such as decoding genetic information or modeling nuclear explosions. In one of the largest deals so far, the National Science Foundation earmarked $53 million in 2001 for the TeraGrid.

The idea is that a marriage of business and academia in this instance will benefit both groups' efforts.

IBM on the inside track
IBM has joined the Globus Project, an effort to write open-source grid-management software. Globus was spawned by researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Southern California, the University of Chicago and elsewhere.

Globus and IBM will offer specifications for the forthcoming version 3.0 of its grid software tools at the Global Grid Forum, the key change from previous versions being the adoption of the Open Grid Services Architecture, Globus said.

"The Open Grid Services Architecture (OGSA) is a proposed evolution of the current Globus Toolkit towards a grid system architecture based on an integration of grid and Web Services concepts and technologies," Globus says on its Web site. "Initial proposed technical specifications have been developed by the Globus Project and IBM, and are being put forward at the Global Grid Forum for discussion, refinement, and (we hope) eventual standardization."

Key improvements coming with OGSA will be tight integration with Sun's server version of Java, as well as with Web services and databases, Globus said. The group hopes to have the new tools done in 2003.

IBM has also co-authored a paper called "The Physiology of the Grid" that describes OGSA. The IBM author, Jeffrey Nick, joins some of the seminal grid thinkers: Ian Foster of Argonne and the University of Chicago, Carl Kesselman of the University of Southern California, and Steven Teucke of Argonne.

The paper, still in draft form, is essentially a blueprint for unifying Web services and grids using Web Services Description Language and other technologies.

But IBM is not the only company involved in grid computing. Microsoft, which hosted an earlier grid forum meeting, is interested in grid security and has been quietly working to see how the authentication services offered by its Passport service work with grids.

Other grid backers include Platform Computing and Entropia, whose software lets not just massive servers but also ordinary PCs participate in the grid's promise of distributed computing.

Sun's involvement
Friday, Sun announced a major step in unifying its Web services effort, built into its iPlanet software, and its grid software, acquired in 2000 and released as open source in 2001.

Sun said its iPlanet Portal Server software now can control its Grid Engine software, a key step in the vision of being able to control how much computing power services get. The idea is to make this as easy as turning a faucet to control how much water comes out of a tap. The move makes Grid Engine part of the Sun One collection of software.

The announcement dovetails with Sun's N1 project to treat data centers crammed with servers and storage systems as a single, gigantic computer.

On Monday, Sun and IBM will join rivals HP and Compaq in announcing support for a grid standard developed by start-up Avaki. The standard, called the Secure Grid Naming Protocol, governs how files are located within the sea of storage systems on a grid and makes sure files can be accessed only by authorized users.

Avaki's chief technology officer and founder, Andrew Grimshaw, has been working on grid technology for years. He also advises Sun on its nascent Jxta software, which lets nodes on a network such as a grid communicate.