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Sun plugs software into the grid

Foreshadowing long-range plans, Sun's internal IT department flips the switch on the company's own utility computing offering.

When it comes to utility computing, Sun Microsystems wants to be a good role model.

On Friday, the server and software company plugged into its own advanced utility computing services when its IT department began running a handful of enterprise resource planning applications on the Sun Grid, William Vass, the company's chief information officer, told CNET News.com. The grid will be widely available to customers in September, he said.

Sun Grid, launched in February and being tested with about 100 companies, is a computing service modeled closely on the delivery of electricity and other utilities, such as water and gas.

In the retail grid's initial phases, Sun is offering processing and storage in a pay-as-you-go arrangement of $1 per CPU (central processing unit) per hour, delivered via an Internet connection. The company has established four data centers to fuel the service.

News.context

What's new:
Sun Microsystems' internal IT department has begun testing a software as a service offering powered by the Sun Grid, which the company intends to offer to customers next month.

Bottom line:
The software-oriented outsourcing services are one of Sun's bets to drive server and software sales through utility computing, although the business models are not fully worked out and the technology is not yet mainstream.

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Though the hardware-based service is still in limited release, Sun is already devising software-related services to go with it. In particular, Sun is building up hosted services for desktop and back-office business applications. It's also seeking partnerships with professional service companies and enterprise resource planning, or ERP, vendors to further develop the offerings, Vass said.

Sun Grid is one of several fledging initiatives aimed at boosting revenue at the beleaguered company. According to executives, the company does not intend to be in the outsourcing business long term. Rather, it expects to benefit from hardware and software sales to data center service providers, which would in turn offer hosted processing and software services to corporate customers.

"By and large, service providers have very little interest in speculatively building up a grid infrastructure in the hope that if they build it, people will come," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. "They want Sun to demonstrate that there is a valid business opportunity."

Corporate customers are slowly taking advantage of grid computing technology, where computing workloads are distributed efficiently across many computers to reduce unused computing power. And hosted applications, in particular, are gaining in popularity, noted Haff.

Sun wants to get in on that action. Vass pointed to the efficiency and economics of the utility computing and hosted approach. Rather than have four servers dedicated to, say, an image-processing application, customers using Sun Grid can access the servers only when they're most needed. In theory, customers can save money by not having to acquire and maintain those servers.

And using a grid configuration can be more cost-effective for service providers than the way those providers operate now, argued Vass. In the case of Sun, it can use its grid software to automatically respond to changes in computing demand and use relatively few servers, in an efficient manner.

"When you combine those (services) in the same architecture," he said, "you get very high utilization (of computing resources), like 70 or 80 or 90 percent--unlike data centers that you run by yourself where you get 15 percent."

Software and hardware
To complement the processing and storage offering, Sun is creating a "software as a service" option which is like traditional application outsourcing arrangements, Vass said. It's also building a "display over IP" service, modeled on its Sun Ray thin-client computers, to access data and applications running on back-end servers.

Sun is currently testing different hosted ERP applications on the Sun Grid, including products from Oracle and SAP, Vass said. In this scenario, Sun will act as an infrastructure provider for hosted applications while a professional services company, such as Computer Sciences or Electronic Data Systems, will provide the maintenance services.

Partners would also deliver hosted desktop software using Sun's "display over IP" infrastructure. Vass said a number of telecommunications companies are testing Sun's "display over IP" service, which is designed to enable Internet-delivered desktop applications--either those from Microsoft or open-source equivalents.

Ultimately, Sun envisions that anyone will be able to use a credit card to access the Sun Grid, upload software and start in with the hardware and software services. Sun is even talking to universities to form partnerships where computing power would be shared between different organizations, much like the electricity grid buys and sells power, Vass said.

Still, Illuminata's Haff said it's not entirely clear that Sun can profit substantially from contributing to the acceptance of utility computing. Even if there were a sharp uptick in demand, other technology providers--EDS, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle and others--can also build efficiently run data centers, he said.

But Sun remains committed. Indeed, its own IT department is a test bed and proving ground. Over time, Sun intends to shift its IT infrastructure entirely to a hosted model. Instead of buying and running its own technology, Sun's internal processing and ERP applications will be delivered via the Sun Grid.

"My future is never buying hardware again," Vass said. "We really are following the power analogy entirely."