Tech vendors unite for grid computing

A consortium of technology companies could help spur the widespread adoption of grid computing as the primary vehicle for collaboration and sharing of information in companies and government agencies.

Members of the Enterprise Grid Alliance (EGA) hope to move the technology beyond its niche in the scientific and technical arena by establishing interoperable standards that could be applied to applications sooner rather than later.

Grid computing virtually links computers and other network resources that are often geographically separated to form one computing environment. It is used primarily to solve problems that need massive amounts of processing power and data storage beyond the capabilities of a single system.

Officials at government agencies have not widely deployed grid technology because of concerns about standards and, particularly, security. But as these issues are addressed, the government could become a fertile ground for grid computing, industry experts say. North Carolina agencies, universities and corporations are already working on a grid network.

"We believe that grids hold significant potential as the next step in the evolution of the [information technology] environment, especially as the technology breaks out from the [high-performance computing] space and becomes more broadly applied in commercial data centers," said John Humphreys, research manager of workstations and high-performance computing systems at market researcher IDC.

Grids will begin to be adopted by the IT community, he said, starting in areas that are not mission-critical. Recent IDC research predicts that the grid computing market will be worth more than $12 billion by 2007.

Government officials who need to share information see grid computing as a potential answer because it provides a way for organizations to share data and collaborate while leaving their security and operational structures in place, said Ron Watkins, business development executive for IBM Corp.'s public-sector grid computing.

It's also seen as a way of building a resilient architecture for consolidating servers, he added. "All the meetings we have with government agencies surround these topics. And most of the agencies we meet with are talking about going with grids."

Agencies need the flexibility that grid computing provides, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. In the past, communities of interest — the people in government who would be interested in and need to be informed about particular

subjects and issues — would most likely have been restricted to within a single agency or office.

Today with homeland security as a driving force, interest in various issues and responsibility for investigating them are much more likely to span several agencies and go beyond the federal government to state and local agencies.

Because communities of interest are much broader than in the past, they require the kinds of data sharing and collaboration that proponents believe grid computing can deliver.

There's an increasing need for project- or policy-focused groups to share information that cuts across agencies, Suss said.

But security and data-handling standards that make it easier for agencies to share information have not yet been set, he said. "Industry really doesn't seem that far along on these standards issues. Once these standards emerge, I think it will open up [the government] market for grid computing."

The new alliance initially will focus on establishing grid standards for data centers. Technical working groups are concentrating on a number of items, including component provisioning, data provisioning and security, which members feel are vital to making grid computing a viable option.

"EGA is substantially about removing both real and perceived inhibitors to moving grid computing into the enterprise," said Donald Deutsch, vice president for standards strategy and architecture at Oracle Corp. and the alliance's president. The U.S. government has enterprise computing issues of a magnitude that are not being addressed anywhere else in the world, he said.

"If the EGA can put in place such things as standard application programming interfaces for the enterprise that can replace the proprietary interfaces that are now available, then government will see immediate benefits," Deutsch said.

In addition to Oracle, other initial founding members of the alliance are Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., NEC Computers Inc., Network Appliance Inc., Fujitsu Ltd., Siemens Corp. and EMC Corp. The group has 20 corporate members.

Other industry groups are also trying to establish grid standards. For example, the Global Grid Forum, a group of several hundred companies and organizations, has been working to develop a broad set of grid computing standards and best practices. And EGA earlier this year, based on the forum's work, announced the WS-Resource Framework, which defines an infrastructure for managing grid resources with standard Web services protocols.

The question is when all of this will come together and how fast it will lead to agencies adopting grid computing.

Rene Copeland, a vice president of government sales at Platform Computing, said government users still need some education about the potential of grid computing. However, he said, during the next 18 months, grid computing will move out of the high-performance computing arena and into more general enterprise applications.

Robinson in a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@ mindspring.com.

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