David Levines customers think playing video games on the Web with a million other people is cool. Whats not cool, however, is having your arrow miss its target during a dramatic battle sequence in the latest Braveheart game because the online gaming site youre using ran out of computing power.
Levine, CEO of Butterfly.net Inc., a Shepherdstown, W.Va., hosting company for Web-based games, is determined to make sure that doesnt happen. So hes powering his companys network with an enterprise grid—a network of servers that work together, seamlessly shifting processing tasks among machines as demand ebbs and flows.
The idea of linking computers to form loosely coupled grids has been around practically since systems were first networked. For the most part, it has proved practical for only technical and scientific applications, where workloads are often massive and problems can be easily broken apart. The concept of using grids for enterprise computing, however, is gaining momentum, particularly as companies continue to extend core applications outside the firewall and onto the Web, where capacity needs are hard to predict. Vendors such as IBM and Microsoft Corp. are backing the notion. Startups such as Butterfly.net are buying in. And even a few established enterprises such as aircraft component manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, of East Hartford, Conn., are beginning to wield the idea of enterprise grids with gusto, convinced they are a way to tap into vast computing resources sitting idle.
But while grids hold great potential for the enterprise, experts say most IT managers should keep a lid on their expectations for the technology. For one thing, most grid computing platforms currently lack the management software required by most enterprises. In addition, standards needed to support interoperability among grid products are not yet in place. As a result, while grids hold promise for enterprises, it will be years before they are practical for tasks that require more than just raw processing power.
"Grid computing is the next killer app or will be the catalyst for a whole new set of applications that we never seriously thought about," said Nathaniel Palmer, an analyst at The Delphi Group, in Boston. "But enterprises need to think about economies of scale before launching into it. The potential is there, but most organizations arent ready."