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Grids moving beyond science

By , Network World
January 26, 2004 12:08 AM ET

Network World - A few years ago, Daniel Kaberon never would have considered deploying any of his applications on a grid-computing environment. Now he can't imagine life without the distributed technology.

Today, Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Ill., human resources consulting and outsourcing firm where Kaberon is director of computer resource management, is running an application that calculates pension benefits on a grid of Linux-based, two-processor, 2.8-GHz blades from IBM.

Kaberon says the grid, which was put into production last fall, has reduced costs associated with each calculation by more than 90% by moving the processor-intensive application off the mainframe and onto less-expensive blade servers. "And we improved the performance of the application demonstrably," he says.

Kaberon already has plans to put another application on the grid and says he expects other applications to follow.

While grid computing remains largely the purview of scientific and research communities, Hewitt is part of a growing movement among mainstream organizations to exploit the technology to improve the efficiency of IT resources and boost application performance. Grid computing, which has received increased attention as talk heats up around various utility computing technologies, basically uses surplus computing power to run distributed or parallel application workloads.

Even today, corporations using grid technology tend to be manufacturing companies; pharmaceutical companies doing computationally intensive modeling and simulation work; and financial firms focused on processor-heavy data analysis applications, experts say.

A survey of 180 companies last summer by research firm Summit Strategies found that 4% of respondents had implemented a grid, and 12% were currently evaluating the technology. Half of the respondents said they didn't have a timeline for when they might deploy grid technology, and 18% said they expected serious grid evaluations to be at least a year away. About a quarter of the respondents said they expected grid to be either extremely important or very important in their IT infrastructure during the next three years.

Vendors such as IBMHPOracle and Sun all view grid computing as a key part, if not the foundation of utility computing, where corporate resources are pooled as a unit that grows and shrinks in response to business demands. But when it comes to business applications, grid computing is still in its early stages.

"You've got this basic challenge that not every flavor of application and information processing benefits from the CPU load balancing kinds of characteristics of grid computing," says Mary Johnston Turner, vice president and practice director at Summit. "If you've got particularly transactional applications, there's really no business case right now to put them into a grid environment."

But the trend is moving in that direction. The Global Grid Forum (GGF) has worked to create specifications to make it easier for transaction-focused enterprise applications to operate within a grid. The Open Grid Services Architecture, developed by the GGF, is now focused on integrating grid standards with Web services.

Grid-focused companies made inroads last week in San Francisco at GlobusWorld, a conference organized by The Globus Alliance, which created the open source Globus tool kit designed for building grids. IBM, along with Akamai Technologies, The Global Alliance, HP, SAP, Sonic Software and Tibco, introduced three Web service specifications designed to support event-notification infrastructure for Web services that can be integrated with grid computing.

The new specifications provide "a foundation for the Open Grid Services Architecture," IBM said in a statement.

Industry observers say adoption of standard specifications such as those IBM and its partners put forward will be the catalyst for more widespread adoption of grid computing. The ability to manage workloads and monitor and charge back for resource usage, as well as enhanced security capabilities, will be important for corporate deployments and for specifications to continue to evolve, analysts say.

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