Utility Computing Gears Up

To hear Sun Microsystems tell it, the question surrounding utility computing isn’t if it will take off, but when. Same with HP. The company considers it a key component of the data center of the future.

Both companies are but two examples of the quickening pace of service offerings in the industry.

Sun announced this week that it has signed Virtual Compute Corp. to its Grid Compute Utility. VCC, a Houston-based provider of on-demand high-performance computing and IT infrastructure management for commercial and government entities, plans to use over a million hours of CPUs on Sun’s Grid.

During a media event scheduled for Nov. 29 at HP Labs, the company will unveil Flexible Computing Services (FCS), which will expand the availability of computer resources to a broader range of customers to “plug-in” to HP’s servers for additional compute power.

Sun’s utility offering comes in two flavors. In the commercial space, corporate customers sign a contract on a CPU per-hour basis. Aisling MacRunnels, senior director of utility computing at Sun, told internetnews.com that VCC was able to get its applications running on the Sun Grid in about four days and re-optimized a week later.

VCC’s deployment on the Sun Grid uses Sun Fire V20z servers powered by AMD Opteron processor-based systems.

The second offering is more of a public utility, where small- to medium-sized companies, or even individuals with a PayPal account can access anywhere from one to up to a thousand CPUs on the Sun Grid at a rate of a dollar per CPU per hour.

VCC is using Sun Grid for customers in the oil and gas industry. Paradigm, a company that specializes in software solutions for geosciences, signed an agreement with VCC to supplement compute resources and gain quick access to thousands of CPUs.

“Sun Grid and VCC have been instrumental in providing us quick, easy access to additional CPU cycles to meet our growing cyclical business demands,” said Bob Nielsen, IT director at Paradigm, in a statement.

“We’ve demonstrated companies can use grid-based computing on a utility basis to increase service while driving down cost, fueling the overall market acceptance for compute on demand.”

This public grid is still in testing with thousands of users already, according to MacRunnels. She expects Sun to make the system publicly available over the next few months, with those customers who’ve already expressed interest in using the grid getting first dibs.

“This is really a new way of thinking that can let companies test out an application on a thousand CPUs from their office or even from home so it really expedites time to market.”

But MacRunnels acknowledges challenges to wider adoption.

“Not everyone is willing to put their applications on a public utility,” she said. Sun offers different options to bridge the transition. For example, companies can lease a grid rack system so they have the security of knowing they control the hardware in-house without having to buy such a system outright.

She also sees seasonal demands. Companies have projects that require a big increase in computer resources for a fixed period of time.

“Think about a car company developing a new model,” said MacRunnels. “They want to get those crash simulations done right away, but that’s not the kind of thing they run all year round.”

Earlier this month, Sun announced two services for its pay-as-you-go compute services model.

One will allow users to convert proprietary data files to the OpenDocument formats and the other will convert text to audio podcasts. Sun officials said they plan to launch a retail version of the text-to-podcast service within the next three weeks but have no timeline in place for the OpenDocument migration service.

HP has also made a big investment in utility computing over the past six years and has garnered several blue-chip customers.

HP is touting its gridworks more too. During a tour of HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., last month, HP executives described how DreamWorks used the 1,000-processor compute farm at HP Labs for “Shrek II” and “Madagascar.”

HP ProLiant DL360 servers running Linux and HP ProCurve network switches are linked via a secure, high-speed network to DreamWorks to provide an extension of DreamWorks’ internal data center. This gives the studio a pooled set of resources that can be tapped as needed without having to make a major capital investment in hardware.

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