The goods for grid

Broad IT knowledge, experience and an open mind are the keys to harnessing grid computing

Grid may be the liberal arts of computing. It requires knowledge about many IT disciplines, a flexible management approach and acceptance of new ideas.

But resumes boasting grid-specific skills and accomplishments remain relatively rare. Grid is not widely taught, and IT workers with hands-on experience in this young field are tough to find.

Still, many in IT have the background that underpins grid technology, such as experience with service-oriented architectures, componentized software and distributed computing.

Here's a look at the talents you need to play in grid and how some IT shops are honing them.

Different Approach

Grid computing applies the resources of a network to work on a single, complex problem or set of problems. One famous example is the SETI@Home project, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in which people around the world share their PCs' unused processing cycles to analyze data in an effort to identify signals from outer space.

Implementing a grid takes a variety of skills and an open mind. "The way one approaches the applications [with grid] is very, very different than is traditionally done in high-performance computing environments," says John Hurley, director of grid evaluation and implementation at The Boeing Co. in Chicago. "Grid computing is very different because it requires you to look at things fairly comprehensively."

Grid requires "somebody able to integrate your middleware, your developers, your networking and your vendors, so there has to be a fairly extensive balance" of skills, Hurley adds.

Grid also involves sharing IT resources, which may mean a loss of control for some business units and IT managers. That's "a disconcerting fact for a lot of IT managers; it's not something that they are ready to accept," says Srinivas Koushik, global chief technology officer at Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Financial Services Inc. "The pushback from traditional thinking is not something we are underestimating." Grid requires a new mind-set where people can truly trust the network, he adds.

Young Technology

Another challenge facing grid implementers is that standards, applications and middleware are immature. "We still don't have enough standards where we can simply plug and play with these things; we have to glue them together," says Wolfgang Gentzsch, who is leading an effort to build a statewide bioinformatics grid in North Carolina for MCNC Grid Computing & Networking Services, an independent, nonprofit IT research center in Research Triangle Park.

Gentzsch says recruiting people with grid-building skills is a challenge. "You need someone who not only has excellent skills in distributed computing but who ideally has five years' experience" with grid, he says. "And you know grid computing is not five years old," he adds with a laugh. "That's our dilemma."

Grid-specific training is limited, and most IT workers graduated from college without it, says Hurley. "The traditional computing science curriculums just aren't preparing folks to deal with these different kinds of issues," he says.

Today, vendors have most of the grid expertise, so some companies are transferring those skills directly to their IT staffs. That's what Nationwide is doing with its grid vendor, DataSynapse Inc.

Koushik says he has been focusing on hiring top-notch professionals who understand applications, middleware and security. He has assigned some of those employees to work with the vendor to learn about the grid implementation. For its part, DataSynapse has established a program to teach grid technology to users.

Tony Bishop, chief business architect at New York-based DataSynapse, says employees who have a good background for undertaking a grid project understand J2EE, .Net, C++ and how to build componentized applications, as well as systems and application architectures. Systems administration and business analysis skills are also helpful, he says.

IT professionals who understand service-oriented architectures and distributed computing and "how those two mesh" should be in good shape to learn grid, says Bishop.

Because grid involves multiple systems, broad IT knowledge is also desirable, says Charlie Catlett, chairman of the Global Grid Forum (GGF) in Lemont, Ill., which is developing grid standards and best practices. "We would look for people who have a good understanding of 10 things, instead of deep knowledge on two things," he explains.

Boeing has sent employees to a two-week GGF program that offers a mix of training that appeals to the technical guru as well as the manager who may be more interested in developing policies for sharing and departmentalizing information on a grid, says Catlett.

Looking toward the future, Gentzsch is working with educational institutions in North Carolina to develop a grid training program. He sees a need for more people with grid skills, particularly to build environments that leverage the power of grid by reaching well beyond organizational firewalls. A skills shortage "will hurt the advancement of the real global grids," he says, and that's "where the real challenge is."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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