IT for hire

Before computing can truly become a utility service, computer vendors must build an infrastructure that can deliver services at the flick of a switch. That, say Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard (HP), is what their new grid exchanges will do.

HP and Sun are in the vanguard of a movement that believes computer capacity is destined to become a commodity: an on-demand service, delivered over a network as simply and flexibly as today's power grids supply electricity. Ultimately, these utility theorists claim, building a private data centre to generate computing capacity will become about as economic and as popular, as building a private power station.

This idea of computing as a utility is not entirely new. During the 1960s, bureau services leased capacity on a time-share basis to organisations that had neither the need for, nor the resources to own and maintain, a mainframe of their own. But this market withered away as cheaper, distributed servers allowed companies to acquire their own capacity in more manageable and affordable chunks.

Today, acquiring capacity on a server-by-server basis is still the dominant computing model, but it is far from ideal. Although modern servers are relatively cheap to buy, they have an expensive habit of proliferating, making them costly to manage and almost impossible to optimise. It would, say the utility theorists, be cheaper and easier if companies only consumed the capacity they needed when they needed it, and at prices dictated by economies of scale that only a shared service utility can provide.

Grid computing utilises a variety of systems automation technologies to allow multiple computers to be treated as one large one. This 'virtual' computer resource can then be scaled up and down as required, and shared amongst different groups of users – even between different sites and organisations.

Today, Sun is already able to rent its Sun Grid infrastructure to customers for $1 per CPU per hour (see box). This is arguably the world's first published utility computing tariff, but it is only the beginning. Last month the company announced plans that, with input from electronic trading platform operator Archipelago Holdings, will allow customers to bid online for capacity as if they were buying surplus office space. Power and telecoms companies trade kilowatts and minutes in much the same way.

Sun has offered no launch date for this exchange service, and may yet be beaten to the punch: HP already operates its own pilot marketplace (see box); IBM claims to have an exchange service in the pipeline; and even Oracle is considering offering its ebusiness suite on a grid model.

More important than who is providing the service is who might use it. So far, interest in grids has largely been restricted to companies such as life-science researchers and digital animators with wildly fluctuating needs for occasionally massive computing resources. Such users are always likely to be net consumers of grid capacity.

To make the economics of public grids work properly, exchange operators must attract more mainstream customers who have significant computing 'capital' of their own, and are prepared to trade that 'liquidity' on an open market.


The new grid service pricing plans in detail


Sun Grid's big selling point is its price: not the level but its simplicity. By offering one hour on one CPU for $1 (rounded up to the next hour), Sun aims to make investments easier to plan for and so justify. It envisages selling the service via a web site, by long-term discounted agreements with regular users and through a trading exchange.

Sun has six data centres in operation or planned: three across the US, one in Canada and two in the UK. The servers within them run Sun's operating system, Solaris 10, taking advantage of its new virtualisation facilities and military-grade security. The underlying hardware uses both AMD Opteron and Sun Sparc processors. Sun will offer a complementary storage service for $1 per gigabyte per month and plans to add application and development capabilities and desktop services to these sites.

For now, the focus is on raw computing. Sun is targeting customers in financial services, oil and gas, retail, pharmaceutical and, of course, scientific research and animation.

But customers will be unwilling to become reliant on a service which, if unprofitable, could disappear. While Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom says that being the first to market with this price model could be a disadvantage, the simplicity is definitely a winner: "IBM' message always gets far too complex and turns people off," he says, while HP is "in limbo" without a CEO.

Sun acknowledges that one effect of the new service, at least in the short term, might be to cannibalise its own hardware revenues. But its executives argue that this is preferable to having others ‘eat its lunch'; Sun's server sales have declined at the expense of Dell, HP and IBM in recent years.


Single frames in digital animation film Shrek could take up to 10 hours of processing time to render (the process that converts animators' computer-generated wire models into finished frames). But rather than building its own data centre, production company Dreamworks hired time on 500 networked servers at a data centre at the nearby HP Labs in Palo Alto, California. HP developed special billing software so that Dreamworks could be charged by use.

The success of this scheme encouraged HP to choose animation rendering as the application for a research project to explore a new method of paying for processor time.

For ‘SE3D', the project set up by HP and software company Alias, 12 UK film makers can use the pooled processing power of 120 HP servers. But first, they have to pay for it, using ‘virtual' HP dollars. HP's resource management software provisions and allocates computing resources according to business objectives.

The film makers can pay using one of two mechanisms: they can "buy now" using the "spot market" price for processing time; or they can reserve power by participating in a kind of auction. Either way, the price of processing power rises and falls according to demand. To participate, the users log on to an ‘eBay' style screen, so that they buy and bid, and manage their accounts.

The project is still in its infancy, and HP is still looking for other early adopters – especially those with applications that are resource hungry but not bandwidth hungry (the filmmakers connect via standard broadband connections).

Peter Toft, SE3D's programme manager, says HP or its partners will eventually be able to offer a variety of services using this model.



Cultural change

"That is the expectation we have," says Andy Ingram, marketing VP for Sun's scalable systems group. "Companies with excess cycles will put them into the exchange. The whole point is to match supply and demand globally – enabled by the global network. It is easy to set up the exchanges. The hardest thing is looking at some aspects of your computing environment as a utility."

The first of these cultural issues that need to be negotiated is the familiar and understandable reluctance with which many companies view the prospect of entrusting key resources to the hands of third parties.

"It's like the Internet," says Philippe Bricard, IBM's grid computing executive for EMEA. "Initially businesses didn't connect but after two or three years they did – not because of new technology but because the model matures."

Security has a key role to play here. Strong measures must be in place to prevent one grid user's data from being exposed to the processes of another and to prevent attacks from the Internet.

Sophisticated new systems management tools will also be needed to manage application licences, measure their usage, and allow them to be charged for accordingly.

However, Sun believes the key to grid acceptance lies in making it easier for companies to determine the price, and hence the value, of any grid investment. "Our view is that many suppliers in the technology industry have relied on mass inefficiencies and opacity to drive short-term profit," Sun president and COO Jonathan Schwartz wrote on his online diary the day the Sun Grid went live. "In the commodity world, it is all about price and transparency – that is at the heart of an efficient market."

Schwartz views the company's $1-per-CPU-per-hour tariff as a challenge to obfuscators such as IBM who, he says, hide the cost of computing in complex pricing structures and consulting fees. For its part, IBM argues that the $/CPU/hour metric is just too simple to be useful.

IBM's position, which maintains that not all CPU cycles are created equally, has some merit, although it is rather undermined by the company's other counter claim that, using its IBM Deep Computing Capacity on Demand grid service, it can undercut Sun's $/CPU/hour tariff by at least 30¢.

The argument over how to charge, and what to charge for, is not likely to be resolved for a long time. Until it is, true utility computing – where customers buy and sell capacity across a heterogeneous grid infrastructure – will not be possible.

Today, points out Meta Group analyst Phil Dawson, even Sun clouds matters by requiring its grid users to use its own preferred software stack. This is all very well, he says, but "if one company owns the stack, third-party apps, databases and application servers are not going to have that level of [pricing] granularity," says Dawson. Without the same transparency and simplicity in software pricing that Sun claims to offer for the underlying platform, the cost-per-CPU model is fairly redundant, says Dawson.

Many other issues must be resolved before utility grids replace today's server-centric model of computing. Potentially the most intractable is establishing the common standards needed to create an exchange that can trade resources from IBM, Sun, HP and their competitors on one floor.

To this end, the three grid pioneers have joined Intel to form the Globus Consortium, to work towards the adoption of an open standards toolkit for building and managing grids. While cynics might suggest that a simply interoperable grid is incompatible with a high-margin services business, IBM's Bricard insists: "Everyone is optimistic that it will happen. There is no doubt about it because the IT world is so complex at the moment that it is not sustainable."

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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