The Network is the Grid?

Given that Grid has such profound implications for the future of distributed computing, it has been somewhat of a surprise that the networking vendors and telco service providers have not yet been very vocal about their Grid intentions.

Apologies to Sun for contorting their famous prediction in my headline.

But given that Grid has such profound implications for the future of distributed computing, it has been somewhat of a surprise that the networking vendors and telco service providers have not yet been very vocal about their Grid intentions. 

In this early stage of enterprise adoption, the systems and hardware vendors have been by far the most outspoken, and therefore the Grid discussions have been very specific to compute and data trends. 

But recent stirrings suggest the enterprise Grid discussion is about to add a little networking flavor to the mix.

Cisco recently completed a quarter billion dollar acquisition of infiniband player, Topspin Communications, a server-fabric switch provider.  Cisco has made previous overtures into their role in the emerging utility datacenter (including a major partnership with IBM ), but this was the first time that Cisco has specifically put an acquisition in the context of Grid computing. 

"There's a specific reason why infiniband is interesting for Grid computing," said Ben Eiref, Director of Business Development at Topspin Communications (now with Cisco's Server Networking and Virtualization team).  "As enterprises move to scale out, commodity hardware environments, buying cheap boxes instead of SMPs - the issue is connecting all of these servers so that they talk together really fast and behave like a big system."

Infiniband is written around a low latency architecture called RDMA (remote direct memory access).  Infiniband allows nodes in a fabric to communicate directly without having to go through the TCP stack or kernel, which introduce a lot of latency and tend  to slow processors down.

Another major new development for Grid networking is that at Supercomm, the Global Grid Forum announced the formation of a Telecom Research Group, which intends to define the telecommunication industry's role in the Grid architecture.  Despite only recently having been formed, the group has already attracted service provider participants such as British Telecom, Sprint and Telecom Italia; and networking vendors such as Alcatel, Foundry and Nortel.

The Telecom Research Group has identified three preliminary areas in which it sees service providers participating in the Grid evolution:  (1) as enablers to Grid providers; (2) as users of Grids internally; and (3) as providers of managed Grid services.  The Telecom Research Group's primary interest is to get the best possible representation of vendor participants, so that the telecom industry can come to quick agreement on Grid networking standards.

"Grid networking is not just about brute force and how many bits per second you send - it's about how to finesse the network experience for Grid users, said Franco Travostino, director in the Advanced Technology / CTO office at Nortel, and one of the team leaders in the Telecom Research Group.  "We want to remove all sorts of GUI-driven and operator-driven issues so that the network can be controlled by software, with specific loops going on between the network and the software, without operators involved."

In other words, you want to make the network a managed resource, just like computing and storage. The Grid infrastructure that federates computer, storage, and software resources dynamically to meet changing enterprise demands must also be able to allocate, configure, monitor, and manage the networks. Best effort is no longer satisfactory when you're configuring distributed resources to meet enterprise quality of service requirements.

So what are the important, network-specific Grid considerations?

I recently canvassed some pros from the networking realm for opinions/insights/predictions about what networking means for the Grid.  Here's what they had to say:

Bob Aiken, director of engineering for academic research and technology initiatives at Cisco

"There are two trends that are going to happen.  One is that you're going to get a lot more intelligence in the network, which has already been going on for a long time, but will accelerate with Grid.  The other is that you're going to get a blurring of boundaries between operating systems and networks and middleware."

Johna Till Johnson, president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research

"We have large service providers as clients, and we generally get a lot of blank looks when we ask them what they're doing to facilitate Grid.  They say, 'show me the point at which big enterprises are buying into the Grid, and then we'll make that part of our networking strategy.'  Well, guess what?  Mainstream enterprises haven't bought into Grid entirely, partly because of the questions around networking."

John Ennis, Vice President of Operations and Information Technology at FiberNet Telecom Group, Inc

"The Internet gets better everyday, but there are quality of service issues and security issues that could be problematic for Grid traffic.  In some cases, we believe that enterprises will be better served by buying dedicated pipes for their Grids, so that they have more control over their intra-Grids' performance."

David Martin, Program Director of Internet Standards and Technology at IBM

"Right now, enterprise networks are uniquely managed, pretty much entirely separately from the application and server environment.  The networking guys come in and do their thing, and then the application guys come in and do their thing.  The way we see it going is that applications will not necessarily be designed to run on a certain piece of hardware in a certain datacenter, so much as being written to use certain types of resources.  To do that, we need more dynamic networks than we have today."

Greg Astfalk, Chief Scientist, Office of Corporate Strategy and Technology at HP

"As enterprise Grid evolves, there's a nagging issue of whether you move the application to the data or the data to the compute resource.  The data-sets are getting larger with the large enterprises of the world having multi-terabyte databases.  How does that data become a participant in a Grid?  Do you replicate it?  Copy it on demand?  Locally cache it?  Either way, large volumes of traffic can be expected from service oriented architectures and Grid computing models.  This will present some interesting new challenges for the network, especially the WAN.  More intelligence and QoS are clearly desirable attributes."

Joe Touch, director of the Postel Center at ISI

"The necessary security and encryption requirements for Grid services could introduce some problematic latency issues.  You can throw money at bandwidth, but you can't just throw money at latency and make it go away - at some point you pay the speed of light tax.  Within the Optiputer project at ISI, we're currently working on a project called FastSec that's investigating how enterprises can pipeline and parallelize security, so that we can reduce the delay."

Vint Cerf, SVP of Technology Strategy, MCIIPv6 (authentication, dynamic reconfiguration, mobility), [but]  IPv6 may someday have to be replaced with something else and one would want the Grid structure to survive operation in a mixed environment. In fact, we want Grid to work in mixed IPv4/IPv6 environments, too, so we should be cautious about binding Grid too closely to either one. The identifiers that Grid should rely on for identification of sources and the like ought to be at higher levels of abstraction than IP addresses, in my opinion."

"In most ways, the Grid is a much higher layer construct than the IPv6 Internet layer.  Consequently, it is important to take some care not to bind Grid overly closely to the network layer of the Internet architecture. Grid may be able to derive some important utility when running over

Grid pioneer Ian Foster is a board member at the Globus Consortium, a vendor-neutral, nonprofit organization promoting the open-source Globus Toolkit in the enterprise. He can be reached at foster@mcs.anl.gov.

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