Grid computing: Term may fade, but features will live on

Grid computing's goal of sharing resources is still a plan for many corporate customers; the question is how to get there most effectively.

Depending on who describes it, grid computing has grown from its roots in high-performance computing into an enterprise technology that provides for shared resources. Or it's an overhyped, meaningless term that will soon disappear in the wake of advances in virtualization and utility computing.

Arguments abound on what constitutes grid computing. But at its core, grid is really an enabling technology that provides on-demand access to computing resources -- including systems, storage and networking -- and data, regardless of location. And because that sounds so similar to how most vendors currently define virtualization, some analysts say the term grid computing may not stick.

The concept behind the technology will likely live on, though, as customers tap into compute power available on underutilized servers, primarily through virtualization. William Fellows, an analyst at The 451 Group and author of a report titled "Grid Computing: State of the Market" (download PDF), maintains that the term will likely be both more significant and less used in 2007. "Grid computing will be more relevant as grids are used to support far more than high-performance computing tasks, but less used as vendors seek to be associated with far more activity, far higher up the stack, than grid computing."

While the semantic arguments continue, virtualization is increasingly viewed as the best way to deliver on grid computing's promise, by creating pools of virtual machines that can be used to set policies, provide automation and help meet service-level agreements (SLA) in companies.

Grid in the enterprise

In the meantime, many large businesses have already invested much in grid.

For example, Wachovia Corp. is spreading grid technology companywide, as Tony Bishop, senior vice president and head of architecture and engineering, explains it. The financial services giant uses grid computing to control infrastructure costs and maintain a high quality of service for clients.

Wachovia first deployed DataSynapse Inc.'s GridServer in April 2001 to support the bank's production systems. The grid software was used as a layer between Wachovia's financial applications and its underlying computing resources and IT infrastructure. The idea is to have a real-time application operating environment to meet critical service levels.

The software harnesses idle computing resources and generated unparalleled levels of application performance, scalability and reliability, Bishop says. Wachovia has since implemented GridServer within its credit, global risk, equity and mortgage-backed securities areas. The bank's 10,000-processor grid is now part of an enterprise strategy to tear down application silos and replace them with an infrastructure that stretches seamlessly across the firm's many investment products and business functions.

The resulting service-oriented enterprise platform, as Wachovia calls its ongoing service-oriented architecture (SOA) effort, is an information-processing utility for end users, who can dial up the capacity they need, when they need it. The environment consists of clients built around Microsoft Corp.'s .Net Framework and a business and data-execution services framework running Java components, including the JBoss application server.

Even given all the investment, grid is not an end unto itself. "We'll continue to use grid computing as a demand broker that parcels out processing to servers with excess capacity," Bishop explains, but the larger goal has become transforming Wachovia's critical IT processing into an SOA utility. The bank's SOA is built with IBM WebSphere appliances and middleware. Bishop says Wachovia is about halfway through its four-year migration plan. Grid technology essentially supplies the on-demand processing capacity across a range of servers.

Meanwhile, 163-year-old New York-based financial services firm Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. is using software from Platform Computing Inc. for its enterprise-wide grid. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon; Lehman Brothers has been working with gridlike technologies and writing distributed software since 1992, according to Thanos Mitsolides, senior vice president of fixed income derivatives technology and analytics at Lehman Brothers. The firm's derivatives, mortgage and corporate credit risk applications are all running on grid technology.

On a daily basis, there are 500 users of the grid made up of mostly IBM blade servers, running an open-source Red Hat distribution of the Linux operating system, Mitsolides says. The next major stage for this grid computing effort will be the sharing of hardware resources by the derivatives and mortgage groups.

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