Facing the Grid Reality

Will grid computing ever amount to more than an overhyped vertical market sideshow? Corporate IT could be excused for asking that question. The technology is widely -- and correctly -- viewed as something used in vertical market niches: for crash simulations,

cracking the human genome or complex financial modeling tasks, but certainly not for more general business computing. And yet corporations could eventually use grids as a medium for aggregating and managing access to a broad range of computing resources beyond CPU cycles, including distributed storage and applications.

Those outside the traditional grid-computing niches, however, might identify the technology as an experiment in computer socialism, hatched in the universities and implemented in projects like SETI@home, in which millions of people share the CPU cycles in their home PCs over the Internet for the higher purpose of detecting radio signals from extraterrestrial life forms.

More recently, Gateway jumped in with its plans to use software from grid software vendor United Devices Inc. to harness unused processing power in 8,000 in-store PCs nationwide and sell that power to businesses for 15 cents per processor hour.

The publicity from that announcement may create a welcome diversion from Gateway's revenue woes, but investors shouldn't hold their breath. The few IT organizations with applications that benefit from compute grids today aren't likely to run those across thousands of retail-store PCs, no matter what security assurances Gateway offers.

More interesting is the idea of using grid technology as an easier way to create federated access to a mix of heterogeneous computing resources for remote office users or business partners, whether connected across wide-area networks or the Internet.

Avaki Corp.'s recently released Data Grid 3.0 is one example. The software, which starts at $25,000, provides any application with secure access to any distributed data source on the grid. The grid server has its own directory that creates a single, unified view of available storage resources. Grid users and groups can be defined within the Data Grid software or by leveraging an LDAP-compliant directory service like Active Directory. Avaki's software can provide authentication services directly or through the enterprise directory service. Data Grid then establishes access controls, uses https to slip through firewalls and can encrypt sessions with SSL.

Who would want to do that? One example might be a manufacturer that needs to share specification and design data with suppliers. Normally, IT might create restricted user accounts and VPN connections or stage the data down to a separate server that's accessible outside the corporate firewall. But managing that can get out of hand, says Avaki CTO Andrew Grimshaw.

"One manufacturer had 3,500 bilateral arrangements set up -- 3,500 separately firewalled and managed systems to manage relations with suppliers," he says. "With a data grid, you can share out a set of files. I can directly access those files, but I don't have an account on your machine."

Since data grids can be set up rapidly and without modification of existing IT infrastructure, another application might be to allow data access between two merging organizations until their IT infrastructures can be consolidated. But Avaki didn't close the sale to the manufacturer with all the bilateral agreements, and most of its customers remain in the traditional industry niches.

What's holding corporate IT back? A lack of standards is the big hurdle, particularly in security. The Global Grid Forum (GGF) is working on a Grid Security Infrastructure specification based on emerging Web services security standards. And its Open Grid Service Infrastructure and Open Grid Service Architecture efforts could enable multivendor grid interoperability someday. But these standards are still evolving.

It's likely to be several years before the pieces fall into place and corporations feel comfortable expanding grids in these ways. Case in point: The vendors that make up the GGF can't even agree on the need for a certification process and compliance testing once standards are in place. "A definition of compliant hasn't even been agreed upon," laments Jijkku Venket, vice president of engineering at United Devices.

Another GGF member adds, "Compliance testing seems like a good idea to me, but that is not a universally held opinion. Some [GGF members] say standards are just the starting point, and then you lock your customers into the [product]."

Vendors can be assured corporate IT won't jump aboard in a big way until the industry gets its house in order. If grid-computing vendors get serious about developing and enforcing real standards, the technology could become much more than a sideshow.

Robert L. Mitchell is Computerworld's technology evaluations editor. Contact him at robert_mitchell@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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