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Grid unlocked

March 22, 2006

The Sun Grid has, at long last, officially arrived. You can now head over to Network.com and buy computing power with a credit card - at a buck per CPU per hour. The grid currently encompasses 5,000 computers, which Sun's Aisling MacRunnels calls "a conservative start."

In a post on his blog earlier this week, Sun's president, Jonathan Schwartz, said that the Sun Grid "represents not only the future of product development at Sun, but ... the future of computing":

This isn't yesterday's definition of On Demand, involving custom financing contracts, prepositioned inventory and a sales rep in a crisp blue suit ready to negotiate. Nope, our definition is just like eBay's: you bring a browser and a credit card, we offer the service. No fuss, no muss. We believe the simplicity, accessibility and affordability of this service changes the face of computing for all organizations, large and small, public or private.

He's getting a little ahead of himself there - he later admits that "it's been tough to convince the largest enterprises that a public grid represents an attractive future" - but so what? Traditional corporate IT departments and the vast IT industry that serves them have a vested interest in propping up the old private-data-center model. It underwrites their existence. The shift from a private-supply model to a utility model will require a tricky balancing act between expanding capacity and attracting demand; the key to success is to achieve ever greater scale economies while also keeping your capacity utilization rates high. As that happens, you can push your costs and prices down steadily until even big companies can no longer resist the economic advantages of moving to the grid.

In the meantime, though, the services offered by Sun and the many other utility-computing pioneers offer welcome new options to smart firms - and individuals - looking for more efficient and flexible ways to fulfill their IT requirements.

Some have asked how much money Sun can make from the Sun Grid. It's a reasonable question, but I think it misses a larger point. I don't think Sun's ultimate goal is to run IT utilities but to supply the machinery to those that do. It's the Thomas Edison strategy. In 1888, Edison built the world's first electric utility - the Pearl Street Station in New York City. It was a marvel of engineering, but it took a couple of years before it turned a profit. Edison didn't care, though. He built the station as a model for others. And his plan worked. Pearl Street set off a boom in the construction of similar generating plants around the country, some operated as public utilities, others operated privately within factories. Edison's company - General Electric - made its money by outfitting those plants, not by running them.

My guess is that that's what Sun is hoping to do as well.


It is interesting when the market hypes a particular technology to "cure what ails ya". The whole grid computing concept is used by those who breathtakingly ignore the way key business applications are architected (and will be architected for the foreseeable future). Most references to positive use of grid computing is around heavy duty number crunching for scientific modelling and analysis.

90% of business use is transaction processing - a completely different discipline. So it just does not map across.

Simply put grid is for scientific and analytical processing and not "pure" business processing. And no, Oracle grid does not count - it is a grid in marketing name only!



Posted by: Simon at March 22, 2006 04:01 PM

One of the early adopters of the Sun Grid is Cadillus Software, a firm that offers compensation management software services. They will run their compensation process on the grid. That's a very resource intensive transaction process, for certain, but there are a lot of transaction processes like that. How about when a utility runs the bills for 4.5 million customers? Should they invest in a huge computer for a once a month job? Grid sounds like a great idea to me.

Posted by: Tom at March 22, 2006 05:35 PM

Pity it is currently US Pilot only.

Large Organizations in India running infrequent batch-type appliations would welcome this approach.

I hope SUN has plans to introduce it in India at the earliest.

Posted by: Mahesh Khatri at March 23, 2006 12:38 AM

Hi Nick

I recently read about Amazon S3 service where it mentioned something similar. Are these services in competition to each other ?



Posted by: Raghav at March 23, 2006 12:52 AM


While the Sun Grid may be tailored to number crunching (I admittedly know only the basics of it's architecture), you're painting a fledgling industry with a vey broad brush. Many of us working to bring utility computing to the masses of applications out there are absolutely aware of how applications are architected and are building our systems accordingly. The vision Nick's been pitching isn't pie in the sky, it's around the corner.

Posted by: Bert Armijo at March 23, 2006 03:00 AM

As the head of an IT department, I'd love to use the Sun Grid. I want to buy the minimum amount of cpu time I need to run my applications. I want to take 200 individual points of failure and move them into a grid where apps can be moved around to meet an SLA. I want to stop caring about the OS, the network, and the hardware. I want to only care about the application as the entity. I want to have an infintely expandable logical server to handle varying loads. I have been asking for this since 1997.

Utility computing companies don't understand the question, or don't have the capabilities to do this. The Sun Grid is a great idea. Try and run a database, an app server, or webserver on the Grid. You can't. I could hire a managed service company to do all of this. However, they are going to do the same thing I am now, just with different people at a monthly cost. This doesn't help me.

Finally, I want predictable variability. I don't want to have to pay for $1/cpu/hr for a JVM to go haywire and consume an ever increasing amount of CPU time. I want to be able to predict costs monthly for budgeting reasons and to keep shareholders happy. I have this now based upon hardware constraints. On an infinitely flexible machine, aka Grid, I can have an infinitely variable monthly cost.

Also, I want a pony.

Posted by: Andrew at March 23, 2006 01:19 PM


What color would you like your pony to be and where should I deliver it?


Posted by: Bert Armijo at March 23, 2006 10:29 PM

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