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Reluctance to share stalls grid computing

New study shows 'server hugging' a barrier to reaping cost and efficiency benefits of one of the hottest trends in corporate computing

Special to The Globe and Mail

Technology managers wanting to jump on one of today's hottest trends in corporate computing will have to apply a lesson most of them were taught in kindergarten -- they must learn to share.

This is the conclusion of a new market study that looked at the barriers standing in the way of companies hoping to reap the cost savings and efficiency benefits of grid computing, a technology that pools the resources of many different computers so they can work together as a single supercomputer.

It is a technology that is being hailed as the next big thing in the corporate computing world. Worldwide sales of grid solutions are expected to soar to $4.1-billion in 2005 from $180-million (U.S.) last year, according to analyst Ahmar Abbas, managing director of Grid Technology Partners in Boston.

Wolfgang Gentzsch, director of grid computing at Sun Microsystems Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., maintains that grids will open the way to "utility computing," distributing resources in much the same way as an electrical grid and playing a transformative role in society similar to the steam engine of the Industrial Revolution or the internal combustion engine of the 20th century.

"Grids will become the basis for utility and on-demand computing in departments, enterprises and on a global level," he says.

"It's going to be the biggest technology trend of 2003," predicts Benny Souder vice-president, distributed database development at Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp.

What is not to like about grid computing? It saves lots of money and increases productivity, Mr. Souder says. "The business case is better, faster, cheaper. And it's one of the few things that you can do where there are no trade-offs."

But what is standing in the way of more widespread adoption of grid computing is organizational politics, according to Ian Baird, chief business architect at Markham, Ont.-based Platform Computing Inc. and author of a study based on a survey of grid computing deployment at 50 large companies.

The study reports that 89 per cent of respondents cited organizational politics as a barrier to implementing grid solutions that involve various departments sharing their computing resources with one another.

Information technology managers don't want to lose control over their departmental resources because "they help define who they are," says Mr. Baird. "It's almost like men and their cars -- IT people and their computers."

The managers are also afraid that giving up control of computing resources may mean a cut in their budgets or make it more difficult for them to get their jobs done, Mr. Baird adds. "There's a notion that, if I share, I may lose priority and, when I want to do work, I won't be able to."

The result is a practice that Mr. Baird calls "server hugging" -- managers refusing to let others share the resources of their servers, the powerful computers that do the processing for their department or a specific application.

Mr. Souder says Oracle ran into these barriers when it installed its own corporate grid. "We had several false starts and a common reaction that people had is, 'I'm glad to share your computer, but you're not going to share mine, because I need it.' But the benefits are compelling and people can be educated."

Ray Nissan, chairman, chief executive officer and technology architect at the Markham, Ont. automation software company Cybermation Inc., uses the simple analogy of a bank line-up to explain the benefits of a grid. If people line up for each individual teller, it is usually hard to guess which queue will be quicker but a single line of people waiting for the next available teller ensures that no one waits for a disproportionate amount of time.

Servers are provisioned to meet the peak needs of the department or application that is using it. For example, an on-line trading department might plan its computing needs to handle a surge in demand at 9.30 a.m., only to have machines lying idle at other times. As a result, the typical server uses about 25 per cent of its computing power most of the time, Mr. Baird says.

Companies can realize some spectacular savings by linking these departmental servers together into networks that take advantage of all the idle processing time, he says.

For example, when Platform Computing and IBM Canada Ltd. set up a grid for a department within the Royal Bank of Canada's RBC Insurance, the time spent on job scheduling was reduced by 75 per cent and the time spent on processing an actuarial application was reduced by 97 per cent.

"We were able to show how you could reduce a job that would have taken 2 hours down to 10 minutes and reduce another that took 18 hours down to 32 minutes," Mr. Baird says.

Mr. Baird says his company's technology also helps address the political issues that his report identified. Workload management tools let managers set rules and policies governing who can use what resources when, making it possible, he says, "to have your control and share it, too."

But the technology for using grids in a business environment is still evolving and the barriers are not all political, according to Duncan Hill, founder and chief strategist of Think Dynamics Inc., a Toronto-based software company specializing in utility computing which was acquired last week by International Business Machines Corp.

"Business applications don't necessarily play well together in the same sandbox," he says, observing that one program may gobble up another's resources or put the other applications at risk by generating a fault or causing a security breach.

"Within an organization, you've got to have business units that trust each other enough and the technology enough that they are willing to let an agent go on their machine and allow the machine to run that other business unit's application," Mr. Hill says.

So far, Mr. Hill adds, grids have been used mostly for number-crunching tasks that can be broken up into separate chunks and parceled out to different computers. But many of the business applications that companies use to serve customers or run their operations on a day-to-day basis are not written in a way that makes it easy to break them up and distribute them in this way.

This is changing, however, Mr. Hill adds, thanks to a new breed of programming and the concept of "Web services," applications created in components designed to work together over the Internet and other networks.

"In business there is a lot of interactive computing," says Mr. Souder. "The key issue is whether software vendors provide the infrastructure that lets you run your business on a grid."

Mr. Souder says Oracle provides one such solution. Other major vendors, such as Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. have also embraced the grid or utility computing model.

But moving everyday business applications onto grids is still a work in progress, according to Mr. Souder.

"A lot of people are dong prototypes and planning. Some are deploying it and the business case is really compelling," he says.

Nevertheless, he adds, "you can overcome all the organizational barriers and political issues but if you can't actually run your applications, it doesn't matter."

By the same token, Mr. Nissan says, political problems will likely disappear as soon as the technology offers managers solutions that satisfy their real business needs. "If this is the solution to their problems, they're going to grasp it."

© The Globe and Mail

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