Utility computing's elusive definition

Participants in a panel discussion at Comdex agree that utility computing is more like a river than a rock, but have little luck nailing down a real definition.

David Becker
David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
3 min read
LAS VEGAS--Utility computing is more like a river than a stone.

That helpful clarification comes courtesy of the main panel on the subject at the Comdex computing trade show, where participants were able to agree on that analogy and the notion that utility computing is real and significant but had little success in nailing down the elusive topic du jour in enterprise computing.

That's because utility computing isn't any one thing. It's an IT management approach, it's a business strategy, it's a hardware breakthrough--depends on who you're dealing with and what your needs are.

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"There's no sea change," said Mark Linesch, Hewlett-Packard's vice president of adaptive enterprise programs, HP's chosen designation for the utility concept. "It's not about a big new technology...It's about establishing a tighter, more dynamic link between the business and its IT infrastructure."

"People don't buy an adaptive enterprise," Linesch said. "They build it over a number of years...It's not just one big bang purchase and 'Ah ha! We're an adaptive company.' "

Of course, if your company wants to buy something, there are plenty of choices. Frederick Dillman, vice president of architecture and technology for Unisys, said much of the early customer interest in utility computing has centered on hosted applications and other service-oriented approaches that both cut costs and allow a company to deploy new technology more quickly than do-it-yourself approaches.

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"People want to get to computing on demand," Dillman said. "They want to deploy applications quickly and efficiently. And they want to pay for everything on a pay-as-you go basis."

John Callis, IBM's vice president of strategy for e-business on demand, highlighted a new IBM program for the volatile animation industry, in which companies buy access to high-end applications and server capacity only when they need it. "We're reacting to what our customers are telling all of us," he said.

John Fowler, CTO of software for Sun Microsystems, warned against ladling out the same on-demand Kool-Aid to everyone, however. "For companies that don't experience seasonal variations in how they use IT infrastructure, a lot of this doesn't make sense," he said. "Outsourcing is another one of the things that may or may not help you."

Participants in the panel, moderated by ZDNet's (a sister site of CNET News.com) Dan Farber, agreed that the utility computing push has suffered from an excess of publicity and conflicting terms, along with some persistent customer misconceptions, including the idea that utility computing is just about saving money.

"It's not just taking cost out," Sun's Fowler said. "It's about the speed with which we can deploy new services that adapt to business needs."

Tony Siress, senior director of advanced services for Sun, said one of the problems with utility computing is the name. "Electricity is a bad example," he said during a panel at the Computer Digital Expo, the sparsely attended Comdex competitor produced by Jupiter Media.

Siress maintained that transportation is a better analogy, considering how people employ a combination of owned, leased and rented cars along with taxis to meet their changing transit needs. "Taxi cabs are a good example of a fully outsourced piece of infrastructure, and they're the right approach in some situations" he said. "The trick is understanding the mix of approaches that delivers the highest value and the least risk to you."