Multinational car giant Mazda operates as a collection of small country-based units, bound together through its Japanese corporate headquarters. At that hub, it has over 100 servers, used for all kinds of tasks from marketing to dealer management.
Those servers are connected over a distributed network, with each server or group of servers dedicated to a specific task. The upshot of this silo structure is that Mazda only uses around 15% of its entire computing resources at any one time, says Masahiro Yoshioka, assistant manager in the company's infrastructure system group. "In a competitive market this is a financial burden," he says.
Its remote locations also present Mazda with a specific problem: the volume of jobs being run on a system can sometimes exceed its capacity.
Mazda is also engaged in developing innovative marketing programmes, such as its ‘Web Tune Factory' that enables customers to order their own customised cars over the Internet. It has identified this as one method of gaining a competitive advantage in what is a cut-throat business. But this places a significant burden on the IT department, which is required to provide systems capable of meeting the fluctuating demands that these services generate.
Seeking to address the dual problems of low server utilisation and fluctuating demand, Mazda has launched a pilot grid computing initiative in its dealer management system. This system processes the receiving order and accounting business in conjunction with car dealers, making it a vital part of the Web Tune Factory.
Electronics giant NEC has been called upon to design the grid and define the requirements of applications that will run on the system. The target for initial roll-out is April 2005. "Increasing server utilisation is one priority," says Yoshioka, "but we also want to see whether we can reduce the burden of managing the system."
NEC is also developing the middleware to help manage the grid. "We've seen that the technology can have big benefits. But we need to know how it will operate in the real world," says Yoshioka.
Progress towards grid computing at Mazda is clearly at an early stage, but the project has gained support from the management board and also attracted funding from the Japanese government, shielding the car-maker from some financial risk.
Once the trial is completed, Mazda will take a decision on whether to extend the system. "Ideally, we'd like this to be the first phase to move more of our business to grid computing. Potentially, this will help us utilise all our resources more effectively and provide a better return for the company," says Yoshioka.