Sun boosts its utility computing backbone

Sun upgrades to the third architecture for its utility computing platform with new networking equipment from Force10. Despite technological advances and simplified pricing, it's unclear whether utility computing is ready to move beyond the high performance computing market.

Sun Microsystems yesterday unveiled a new architecture for its utility computing systems, Sun Grid. The company built its new computing backbone on networking equipment from Milipitas, Calif.-based Force10 Networks. Sun said the new equipment will allow it to reduce the number of switches in a typical Sun Grid installation more than twenty fold.

The partnership with Force10 is expected to help avoid bandwidth bottlenecks, improve failover resiliency and bring some new security features to the grid.

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Sun's utility computing service is designed to allow companies to lease computing time on the network. Sun has been building out its utility services since 2000, but last year it rolled out a commercial offering with a one dollar per CPU per hour pricing scheme.

Sun said its utility offering is a cost-effective alternative to building and maintaining IT infrastructures for short term spikes in demand for CPUs. Sun marketed it as a mainstream offering, but the company's few public customers -- such as Princeton University and a fossil fuel surveyor -- are all high performance computing users.

One of the problems with mainstream adoption of utility computing is that many business applications aren't designed to run over the grid architecture, unlike many HPC programs.

And analysts are mixed on whether the time has come for utility computing adoption in the business world.

John Madden, practice director at Boston-based Summit Strategies said he sees a lot of interest for utility computing adoption for companies that need more computing power but don't want to buy into more infrastructure, facilities and staff.

"The economics of accessing a bulletproof infrastructure are attractive," Madden said. "Wider adoption is not as far off as people think."

Madden cites activity from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Unisys and others as a sign that there is activity in the industry and it's something IT pros are going to take a closer look at as more technological and business barriers are removed.

Clay Ryder, president of the Union City, Calif., Sageza Group was less optimistic. "There are some cases where companies are using [utility computing]. But most companies already have IT infrastructure investments. I'm not sure if there is a real cost benefit story for customers to bite into."

According to Ryder, utility computing is still for the lab coat set, and it's going to be a hard sell for businesses to change the way they've always operated.

But that hasn't daunted Sun. "We're trying to reduce the barriers and I think you'll see a move towards this in the next few years. Analysts have been more skeptical than the customers," said Aisling MacRunnels, senior director of utility computing at Sun.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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