Grid cloud of confusion lifting

Grid computing seems to be leaving the state of confusion. Experts believe concrete results have helped the technology overcome its cloudy definition.

Grid technology has turned Dr. Peter Westfall's desktop into a supercomputer.

A statistics professor at Texas Tech University, Westfall uses grid computing for various simulation models. And thanks to the technology, he can get work done in a day that otherwise would take a week to do.

"I get results back quickly and have time to modify them," he said. "It helps me meet my deadlines."

Whatis.com defines grid computing as "the application of the resources of many computers in a network to a single problem at the same time." Grid groupies say the payoff is a more versatile and flexible datacenter that responds to real-time demands without wasting computing power and new business functionality built on the back of technology. And evidently, more and more people – like Westfall -- are believers.

Grid computing is no longer solely the domain of giant datacenters charged with massive data-crunching tasks such as the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to find intelligent life in outer space. Not unlike the Internet in the early to mid-1990s, grid is quickly evolving toward the mainstream datacenter, according to those who've been watching this technology.

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Jeff Kaplan, managing director of THINKstrategies in Wellesley, Mass., said that grid computing is now at the tail end of an early-adoption phase and is delivering on its promises.

"The pioneer implementations have been successful and proved the concepts of cost savings and increased productivity," he said. "And people are becoming more comfortable with the technology."

The loose definition of grid computing might have been a major source of the discomfort.

The definition of confusing

Steve Crumb, executive director of the Lemont, Ill.-based Global Grid Forum, a community of users, developers, and vendors leading the global standardization effort for grid computing, said that if you ask 10 different people what grid computing is, you'll get 10 different answers.

"Fundamentally, it's about the virtualization of resources and gives the end user greater flexibility and capacity to use IT resources in an agile way," he said. "Ideally it should enhance business processes."

"To me, it means having a fundamental task to compute and wanting to do it many times in many different scenarios," Westfall said.

Cheryl Doninger, R&D director for SAS Grid Computing in Cary, N.C., agreed that grid's elastic definition can be confusing. Her team tries to keep things simple.

"We define it as means to provide resources to a collection of computers in a network and harness the power into a single project," she said.

Doninger admits that there's been a lot of confusion about grid computing from a customer's perspective mainly because people try to make it more complex than it really is.

"Time will clear that up," she said. "We're still very much an emerging technology in terms of adoption and implementation, but as more success stories are publicized, the wave will grow." Doninger sees more organizations going grid within five years.

The next step

By the time 2010 rolls around, grid standards will have combined with service oriented architecture standards as well as Web services standards to make widespread adoption more doable, according to Crumb, taking the technology beyond the massive government, finance and pharmaceutical datacenters and rolling it out to the masses.

"It will evolve to the point where people use it at home, and organizations that use other standards to exchange data will be using grid standards," Crumb said. He's anticipating a surge in grid adoption even before the end of this year.

Major vendors like SAS are looking to grid-enable their offerings so datacenter managers can realize the benefits and add resources to their grid environments as their needs increase, according to Doninger.

Other grid vendors, like Sun Microsystems Inc., are looking for more integration between ISV software and the layer of middleware that organizes and coordinates the distribution of work in order to ensure the grid is working efficiently.

"We're also looking into efficient tools for managing systems on the grid itself," said Renato Ribeiro, grid marketing manager for Sun. "Monitoring, servicing, provisioning DOS, patch management – everything that lowers the overhead of managing the system."

The grid arena also includes such heavy hitters as IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Some of those larger companies have customer mandates to help create grid standards, but smaller vendors such as Marlboro, Mass.-based Egenera Inc. are also making a push, according to Kaplan.

"The competition should help drive down prices and clear up confusion about the technology," he said. "But marketing hype makes people crazy along the way."

Kaplan also believes the technology's move to the mainstream will push more datacenter managers to gird for grid by finding third parties to provide skills and services. And the earlier they start looking, the better.

"Most small organizations won't have a need for it right away," he said. "But if they can take advantage early, they can build out their infrastructure quickly."

This was first published in July 2005

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