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Start-up transforms unused desktop cycles into fast server clusters

Cycle Computing wants to make its automated clustering technology viable in cloud computing services like Amazon EC2

By , Network World
November 29, 2010 02:56 PM ET

Network World - When you consider technologies that make corporate IT more efficient by improving utilization of computing resources, VMware and its x86 virtualization software may be the first that comes to mind.

But there's a newer, much smaller vendor on the scene that has attracted numerous Fortune 500 customers with grid and cloud management technology that reuses wasted compute cycles and automates the process of building HPC clusters.

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Cycle Computing, founded five years ago primarily to help customers use Condor, a workload management system that can run compute-intensive jobs on idle PCs, has grown to manage numerous job scheduling systems, help customers reuse wasted capacity in VMware installations, and support cloud services such as Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud.

At the recent SC10 supercomputing conference in New Orleans, founder and CEO Jason Stowe ticked off an impressive list of customers, including JP Morgan Chase, Pacific Life, Lockheed Martin, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Bank of America, Electronic Arts, Johnson & Johnson and ConocoPhillips. JP Morgan Chase, for example, uses Cycle Computing technology to run large calculations on desktop cycles that would otherwise go to waste, according to Stowe.

Cycle is bootstrapped with no external investors, and pulls in "a couple million dollars" in revenue from fewer than 100 customers, according to Stowe. Cycle has fewer than 20 employees and has been growing revenue 50% a year for the last four years, he says.

Just as VMware borrowed technology from IBM's mainframe and applied it to the modern data center composed of x86 servers, Cycle Computing has taken strategies based on decades-old research and adapted them to the age of cloud computing and virtualization.

The idea of harnessing unused cycles from desktops to build a computing cluster has "been around for 20 years at this point," IDC analyst Steve Conway says. (Condor itself was started nearly 25 years ago). Cycle Computing has succeeded because it automates the difficult tasks that have to be performed by IT administrators, Conway notes, saying "Everyone's looking for ease of use."

But Conway says what he's most excited about regarding Cycle Computing is the vendor's long-term plan for making clustering technology viable in cloud computing services like Amazon EC2. While Conway believes the technology is not quite there today, over the next few years "it could be possible to replicate in public clouds the corporate, on-premise computing environment, with all the policies, directives, and all the rest of that intact. It truly can be an elastic extension of the corporate environment."

The CycleCloud product, built upon Amazon Web Services, lets customers create high-performance computing clusters that automatically turn nodes on and off as jobs are started and completed.

In about 10 or 15 minutes, the CycleCloud software "spins up an entire HPC environment inside Amazon infrastructure," with shared file systems, a terabyte of storage, 10 Gigabit per second interconnect and Intel Nehalem chips, Stowe says.

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