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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The calculation that RBC Dominion Securities Inc. uses to analyze risk on some specialized financial products used to take about five days on a cluster of computer servers dedicated to the job.

That was until RBC, a unit of Royal Bank of Canada, farmed out the job to a grid of several dozen computers. Now it takes only four hours and can be run daily instead of weekly.

Welcome to the growing world of grid computing, where groups of computers used mainly for other purposes are put to work together in their spare time. Grids can take computers using only 10 to 20 per cent of their capacity and get them working 90 per cent of the time, says Don Dipalma, chief technology officer for RBC Dominion.

Public projects such as the SETI@Home initiative, which uses a grid of home computers to sift radiotelescope data for signs of life elsewhere, have been the most visible efforts. Grids are also popular in government, academia and research.

Now, they are also making inroads in business, attracting particular interest among large corporations with complex computing problems to solve.

''There's a tremendous amount of interest from life-sciences companies,'' says Tim Williams, senior product manager at United Devices Inc., an Austin, Tex.-based maker of software for running grids. ''Grid computing allows them to accelerate the drug discovery phase.''

Mr. Williams says Novartis Pharmaceuticals, a unit of Swiss company Novartis AG, set up a computing grid last year to put underused office computers to work analyzing drug research data.

The oil and gas industry is also using grids for work that helps exploration companies understand the geology of an area and identify promising drilling locations and estimate the likely size of deposits, says Ian Baird, chief business architect at Markham, Ont.-based Platform Computing Inc.

Manufacturers, particularly auto makers and aerospace companies, are also using grids for design work and simulating crash tests, says Mr. Baird, who estimates about 80 per cent of his company's sales are to commercial customers. Platform's customers include Bombardier Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp.

In the financial sector, grids help with the complex calculations involved in areas such as derivatives trading, says Dave Williams, business development executive for server brands at IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham. RBC has set up several computing grids in its capital markets and insurance units, Mr. Dipalma says. The grids let about 100 computers, from PCs to large servers, share large jobs.

Not surprisingly, the computer industry itself also uses grids. IBM, for instance, has attached a number of its computers to a grid used to stress-test software before it is released. ''It saves us having to invest in a roomful of machines to do this,'' Mr. Williams says.

Virtually all companies using grid computing today have one thing in common: They're big. To build a worthwhile grid, there must be a lot of computers. And the problems grids solve best are mainly problems big companies face.

Dr. Martin Stuart, vice-president of sales and services at Entropia Inc., a San Diego-based grid software firm, says the minimum cost of a grid would be about $30,000 (U.S.). Mr. Baird says $100,000 would cover a small grid using Platform technology. He adds this investment is small compared with the cost of buying dedicated hardware for the same work.

The approach that Platform, United Devices and other grid-technology companies are taking -- selling large corporations the tools to create their own computing grids -- is only one way of making money from grids.

Using United Devices' software, computer maker and seller Gateway Inc. has linked about 6,000 personal computers in its U.S. showrooms to offer a service it calls Gateway Processing on Demand. Gateway charges 15 cents a gigahertz hour of processing time.

One customer, the American Diabetes Association, uses the grid for a system that can simulate the effect of different treatments on diabetes patients.

Grid computing could also play a role in IBM's vision of delivering computing power as a utility -- companies could purchase computing horsepower as they need it from a supplier that actually owns and runs the computers.

''I would say we're just getting started with business customers,'' Mr. Williams says.

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