The Good Grid: For Real Power, Band Those PCs Together
By James Evans, special to dash30
Like the human brain, the personal computer normally uses only a small portion of its potential. The good
news is that there's no mystery about how to unleash all that unused PC computing power. It's called grid
computing, and the corporate world is taking notice.
The idea is that linking the thousands of underutilized or even idle PCs and servers in large corporate
arsenals can create the equivalent of a supercomputer without the latter's enormous purchase and
maintenance costs. Companies can harness that dormant processing power for their own projects, or rent
it out. For example, the computing capacity of PCs or servers in a big brokerage firm, which may remain
mostly untapped in any 24-hour period, could be used by a pharmaceutical company over the Internet to
simulate drug combinations.
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"Grids are a richer environment that builds on the Internet," says John Buscemi, an IBM spokesman.
"Eventually, we will get all our computing resources by plugging into a wall, like we get electricity. We
won't care where the computing power is from, just that it's there when we need it."
The excitement of the grid movement has inspired numerous startups to service the growing market with
software, expertise and computing power, aiming either to access the millions of individual PCs connected
to the Internet or the more proprietary networks of PCs and servers owned by corporations. The software
essentially recognizes and allocates the processing resources of computers tied to the grid, based upon
policies set by the computer owners and the needs of the grid users.
Additional attractions of grid processing are that thousands of jobs may be submitted at a time without
users being concerned about where the computers are located, while project initiation and results are
available from anywhere with Internet access. Although some firms worry about the security of their own
data when they share processing power, industry analysts say such trepidation is largely unfounded
because the centralized management structure can be well controlled.
The grid concept also has given rise to "farms" of servers, hosted by such technology leaders as IBM and
Hewlett Packard. These "farms" are available over the Internet to any organization that requires a massive
amount of computing power for a limited time. Other companies stepping into this emerging field include
such staunch competitors as Sun Microsystems and Microsoft.
The three primary classes of grids, scaling from individual PCs to supercomputer- style processing farms,
Cluster grids -- the simplest, consisting of one or more systems working together to provide sufficient
power to users in a single project or department.
Campus grids -- combining cluster grids to enable multiple projects or
departments within an organization to share computing resources to handle a wide variety of tasks.
Global grids -- a collection of campus grids from many and often unrelated
entities to create enormous processing capability that far exceeds the resources available within a single
"Users can now think of the rest of the world as a computational resource ready to
be tapped," says Wolfgang Gentzsch, engineering director for grid software at Sun. "Organizations can get
immediate and easy access to information and services, solve problems and offer services to anyone in
the world. Indeed, just as the global community uses the Net to communicate, one day the world will use
the grid to compute and collaborate."
When Gentzsch says "one day," it's not meant to convey a current technical inability, but rather a time
over the horizon when the benefits of grid computing are recognized more broadly. Companies that have
needs that can be met through a grid can enjoy those considerable and inexpensive resources now, he
Sun Grid Engine software, for example, which creates the simplest cluster grids, is free, while the cost for
the Enterprise Edition, running campus and global grids, is determined by the number of CPUs involved.
Most grid software providers currently dedicate their product to a single platform, yet many are rushing to
develop multi- platform products.
Although distributed computing, as grids also are known, has been employed for several years, primarily
by academic institutions, the private sector increasingly is embracing the technology to enhance
productivity and reduce expenses. Projects include:
GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, is using its thousands of PCs through an Intranet to explore
sequence similarity, protein folding and structures, and to analyze clinical data. The company turned to a
grid solution because the huge increase in computing requirements that genomic research has mandated.
With millions of potential compounds to screen, the company opted not to buy more costly computers but
instead tried to summon more life out of its existing machines. Rather than develop its grid internally, GSK
chose a vendor to set up the system on its Windows NT platform, using about 20,000 PCs, a third of
company's total. Among its main concerns was network bandwidth and security, offset by the system
being inexpensive, easily expandable and requiring low maintenance.
Synopsys, a maker of complex integrated circuit design software, is using its
workstations, which had been operating at less than 20 percent capacity, to handle regression testing. Not
only has reliance on a grid system taken the headache out of scheduling projects for compute time, it
typically has decreased testing from 12 to three hours.
Sony Corp. is looking at employing the global grid provided by its gaming
customers to serve the computing needs of the company's next generation PlayStation 3. Sony's game
developers want the next console to have a thousand times the processing power of the current
PlayStation 2, and the only way to accomplish that is by linking PlayStations into a grid to share software,
processing power and data.
IBM argues that grid computing is in a nascent stage and will loom large in the
future for global corporate, government and academic needs. The company is working with the U.S.
Department of Energy to create a shared virtual supercomputing system that researchers across the
nation - and possibly the world - can tap.
IBM recently signed a contract with the British government to enhance its National Grid, a huge network of
computers throughout the country. IBM also is building a grid system at Oxford University to store and
process high-energy physics data. It will be connected to the U.S. Particle Physics Laboratory in Chicago
and the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.
Yet grids for the moment don't work for everyone. Oil producer and refiner Conoco, for example, looked at
distributed computing for its seismic imaging center, but decided that the lack of sufficient Internet
bandwidth would constrain the amount of data that had to be moved. Conoco instead built its own
supercomputer to handle the sophisticated demands of virtual oil exploration.
Indeed, grids as currently created are not applicable currently for every situation, says Rob Batchelder,
director of research at Gartner Research. "Grids are more suitable for financial or medical research, and
not so much for moving large amounts of data around the Internet," Batchelder says.
Yet, despite those words of caution, he says grids make good economic sense, and corporations
increasingly will appreciate what they have to offer. "Companies will understand that all the money they
spend on computers really has created one computer, and they will want to keep it busy," says
Batchelder. "A grid offers far more computing capacity to companies that need it without large additional
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