Getting on the Grid

With a whiff of bravado and a touch of retro, IBM has announced an
approach to networked computing that could dramatically alter how
corporations allocate computing resources for large-scale projects.

The current network model prevalent in the corporate world is to
distribute resources as needed, combining desktop power with servers for
specific functions, such as printing or Web serving. For users, their
main computing power sits on their personal machine. Larger-scale
projects will tend to centralize resources on a mainframe or a
supercomputer.

What IBM has announced treats computing power less as a function of
the local machine and more as a function of the extended network. IBM
uses the analogy of an electrical grid to describe its plan. When you
plug in your refrigerator, you don’t need to worry about the electrical
generators that create the electricity. Similarly, if you need loads of
computing power, you should be able to tap into those resources without
worrying about how those resources are generated. Simply plug into the
grid and compute away.

Remotely Deja Vu

Now, for those who remember playing The Oregon Trail over a teletype machine, the idea of transparently tapping remote computing resources may not sound all that new. The notion of a grid-based virtual-computing system have been floating around the supercomputer world for years now. And distributed-computing schemes are not new, either: witness the [email protected] program, which uses unused CPU cycles on networked machines to search for life on other planets.

“Grid computing presents the next big evolutionary leap for the
Internet,” says David Turek, IBM vice president for Linux Emerging
Technologies. “If we think of the Internet today, we think of mail,
instant messaging, and Web serving — it’s wonderful for content
distribution. Grids really extend the notion of virtual computing
substantially, as they unite far-flung computing resources and craft a
virtual computing environment.”

This uniting is already underway, as IBM has already won a contract
from the British government to provide key technologies within the
“National Grid,” a massive network of computers distributed throughout
the United Kingdom. IBM is building a Grid system at Oxford University,
where it will used to store and process high-energy physics data. The
grid will be connected to the U.S. Particle Physics Laboratory in
Chicago and the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle
physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

Once the Grid is complete, scientists all around the United Kingdom
will be able to access data to collaborate remotely on CERN projects.
For example, using the National Grid, scientists in a lab in Cambridge
will be able to run sophisticated high-energy physics applications on
computers in Belfast.

IBM is tackling a similar project in the Netherlands. In addition,
IBM Research built its own Grid — a geographically distributed
supercomputer linking IBM research and development labs in the United
States, Israel, Switzerland, and Japan.

Brute Force Networking
Retro? A little. The ability to run applications remotely has been
the mantra of the X Window System, where MIT programmers created a
network-transparent for running applications across the network. (X is
the basis of graphical interfaces used in Linux and most UNIX systems.)
What IBM is proposing is to take this transparency to the next level,
totally abstracting the differences between machines, and to make this
transparency and power available on demand if need be.

IBM is also rolling its Project eLiza and existing operating systems
into the larger Grid initiative. eLiza is a program for delivering
self-managing systems and technologies with enhanced performance and
security. Grid protocols will be incorporated into eLiza offerings,
while Linux and IBM AIX are already capable of supporting and accessing
Grid projects. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, architect of IBM’s Internet,
Linux and Project eLiza strategies, will also lead IBM’s Grid Computing
Initiative.

IBM is turning to the Open Source community to help implement the
project, enlisting the Globus
project
to develop protocols and technologies. Begun in 1996, the
Globus project is largely an academic project designed to implement
virtual computing across distributed machines. The source code for
Globus is available for anyone.

So what practical applications will we see? Despite the use of the
electrical-grid metaphor, this technology initially isn’t meant for the
casual user who wants to crunch some Excel spreadsheets, nor is it meant
for typical network based on print and file services. It’s initially
meant for workgroups who need brute force to complete their work, such
as auto and airplane designers, scientific researchers, or drug-research
firms.

“The real market are virtual organizations: companies that come
together in a grid to collaborate on a problem,” Turek says. “A lot of
these will be driven by people with intense computing needs, like earth
sciences or weather forecasting.”

Bonuses for Big Blue
What does IBM get from this new plan?

“In the strategic sense, we get the opportunity to provide a service
to customers,” Turek says. “Today, if you want to compute, you buy a
computer. In the future, you can do computing by dialing into a
service.” In addition to the aforementioned UK and Netherlands projects,
the U.S. National Science Foundation has made funds available for
development of an infrastructure that may result in system deployments
as well, while the Department of Defense is considering grid projects.
In addition, NASA already deployed grids internally.

And, perhaps more pragmatically, IBM will look to work with
resellers, such as current Application Service Providers (ASPs), who can
offer grid services on their own.

“This technology will allow a lot of other companies providing
similar services — such as servers, storage, middleware — everything
they need to sell grid services on their own,” Turek says. “A market
segment will want to build grid for their own use, so we will sell them
services and technologies under their own initiatives.

“ASPs are used to delivering applications on demand, and we’ll work
with them to make that evolutionary step to delivering computing power
on demand.”

This article was reprinted from CrossNodes, an EarthWeb Network site.

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