Sun Heats Up the Grid-iron

 
 
By David Worthington  |  Posted 2002-06-06
 
 
 

Sun Microsystems Inc. is taking on IBM yet again -- this time in grid computing.

Both companies are poised to roll out a wide range of grid computing products and services that promise to cut IT costs, improve resource management efficiencies, and create entirely news ways to work.

Sun is planning to release its latest software based on the technology, Enterprise Grid Software, as well as a freeware grid engine, Thursday.

Grid technology was derived from the design philosophy behind the World Wide Web, which provided an entirely new infrastructure for the allocation and sharing of resources. As such, grid computing has promised to unleash an entire generation of distributed applications and services with far reaching implications for research and information systems.

With Suns official release of Enterprise Grid Software the technology, which was once delegated solely to computationally-heavy research, inches ever closer to the enterprise.

Last November marked the beta release of Suns Grid Engine Enterprise Edition 5.3 resource allocation software. Since then, the product has been fine-tuned to include features such as a new policy management module that allows users to allocate tasks across different machines and within the same firewall. As a result, IT resources can be consolidated and collaboration within an organization is increased. Resources are matched with the work that has to be done. The module is peer governed and invokes a time element to support the needs of the organization it serves to complete projects at given time.

Sun claims that what makes the Enterprise Edition release unique is that it is the only software of its kind on the market to take into account segmentation of computing power in lieu of focusing solely on priority.

Security for Enterprise Grid Software has also been enhanced by the use of SSL certificates; in contrast, the 5.2 release relied exclusively on native Unix functions. This borrows the Webs customary approach to security between remote clients and servers.

The Enterprise Grid component will cost a minimum of $20,000 for between 0 and 50 CPUs; and a maximum of $80,000 for between 250-2000 CPUs. Pricing does not include support costs. It runs exclusively on Solaris for the time being, although a Linux port is in the works. This release also includes bundled HPC cluster tools.

Since November the number of Sun grids has increased markedly from 3,060 to 5,100 with the rate of adoption holding steady at 70 new grids per week. These are mainly enterprise level grids, averaging 42 CPUs per grid. Existing grids only need to upgrade the master to 5.3 to realize benefits.

Sun provides its open source grid engine free of cost. Grid engines fit within the framework of Suns Enterprise software and alternatives, such as Globus that pipe them together. The engine currently operates with Solaris and Linux both on the Intel Corp. and Sparc-based platforms.

Groups independent of Sun have tinkered with the source code to extend the availability to variants of Unix such as IRIX and AIX. Sun advocates open source, stating that it furthers the development of Sun-backed standards and discourages divergence toward proprietary frameworks.

Coming of Age

Despite the transparent nature of Suns actions and rhetoric, an IBM spokesperson raised the question of whether or not Sun would be willing to subscribe to developing grids that are truly heterogeneous as opposed to attempting to usurp the technology by driving standards to operate solely on its own platform.

According to Suns Miha Ahronovitz, Product Manager for grid computing, Sun is surely seeking to operate within heterogeneous environments and will work in an open and "standard-conforming" way. Sun has actively participated in establishing open standards for grid computing by joining competitors in backing industry organizations such as AVAKI, the Distributed Resource Management Application API working group (DRMAA), Globus, and the Global Grid Forum. Sun has vested interest in AVAKI and has forged a joint marketing agreement with the group.

"I see Sun being of two minds," said International Data Corp. Vice President of Systems Dan Kusnetzky. "They will continue to press standards but at the same time make their own systems look a bit more attractive."

Sun is facing extreme competitive pressure from inexpensive X86 racks running the Linux/Gnu operating system.

Spinning a New Web

There are three clear stages of development in grid computing: cluster grids, campus grids and global grids. The 5.3 release is Suns campus -- or enterprise -- grid. Although measures must be taken to prevent a user from spoofing a process in a campus grid, authentication becomes critical in a global environment. The same challenges to security that any vendor faces on the Internet apply to grids that link geographically distributed groups. This is further complicated by dynamic events that occur within a grid as machines flux between the role of client and server.

Suns Ahronovitz admitted that although there are working groups on security, there are no hard specifications yet. He pointed to the academic community as the largest user of global grids and stated that theyre expected to "iron out" many of the wrinkles facing secure computing.

Most of the security issues tackled by these researchers will occur at a lower level than Microsofts Passport or the Sun-backed Liberty Alliance solutions. However, Passport and Liberty would be an important building block toward a complete solution.

Suns business strategy revolves around offering concrete deliverables, even in cluster grids. The networking giant promises to provide complete grid solutions to its customers that reduce costs, shorten time to market, and increase innovation and quality. According to the companys own figures, the typical organization has only traditionally harnessed 15-20% of available resources. Grid Marketing Manager John Tollefsrud told eWeek that grids will enable organizations to do things that they couldnt do before as well as work together in ways that were previously unthinkable. The only downside is that not all applications are suited for grid computing, and Sun must choose its battles closely.

Despite the rosy future the company has forecasted for grids, Sun concedes that adoption is an evolutionary process and is focusing solely on targeted deployments.

A real life example of grids in action is Ford Motor Companys Powertrain division which has deployed 500 dual processor Sun Blade workstations dedicated to product development. During the work day, one processor operates interactively while the other generates batch jobs to be processed at night. Grids allow engineers to run batch jobs during the day using spare computing power.

Buffalo-based Cognigen, a company that performs statistical analysis and modeling for drug discovery, experienced a situation where it was growing too fast without enough resources. By "dropping in" grid software into its existing 23-node cluster – a process that took no more than 6-8 hours –IT Director Duncan Ross obtained savings of one hour per day per scientist as well as a 10-to-1 shift in cost of equipment, and a twofold increase in processing power.

Other early adopters of Suns technology include chip developer Synopsis, who has abandoned its practice of performing nightly builds in favor of a grid-based system that allows prioritized jobs to process during the day. Motorolas Wireless group is also holding trials that may expand to encompass its semiconductor operations in entirety.

A U.S. government supercomputing facility located in Maryland also benefited by applying grid technology to solve an age-old inter-agency dilemma: budgeting. The Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Air Force are among the constituencies that financed the Maryland center. Grid computing allows for a disbursement of computing power that reflects what each agency contributed.

Surprisingly, financial services comprised nearly as many downloads of Suns grid software as did life sciences. Abstract numbers take time to process and are often consolidated at the end of the day. By using grid technology, real time results are possible – lifting the veil of uncertainty many companies experience during trading hours.

"We continue to deliver on our promise that the network is the computer. Suns grid technologies will be key components of the N1 architecture and our vision to virtualize the data center and maximize our customers return on investments," said Scott McNealy, Chairman and CEO of Sun in a statement.

Further demonstrating Suns commitment to parallel processing, Sun product manager Miha Ahronovitz told eWeek that the company is planning a joint conference with Oracle Corp. in the near future to discuss ways of tying grids into databases. According to IDCs Kusnetzky, grid computing is a proof point along Suns path toward virtual environments.

Although Sun does not have the highest revenues in grid computing, that is not the only metric to judge its position in the market. IDC reports that many researchers are running grids on the Sun platform, and cites open source for any disparity showcased in revenues.

The Gridiron Heats Up

Suns release is nipping at the heels of last weeks IBM announcement of the addition of the Globus Grid protocols to AIX, which make IBMs servers ready to plug into grids. IBM does not offer its own grid engine, and according to IDC, is at a different point of evolution in the infant world of grid computing than Sun. Sun is a more mature vendor of virtual processing environments – having been involved in the field for a considerable period of time. Sun purchased GRIDware in July of 2000.

IBM subscribes to the same course as Sun in the establishment of open standards, and is also an active supporter of Globus. It is currently working to integrate Globus support into its WebSphere, E-business software, and is Grid-enabling its product lines. Globus also has open grid services in the pipeline.

Microsoft Corp. research is actively mulling distributed computing with projects ranging from Farsite -- a fault tolerant remote file system -- to the Millennium, a project to build distributed systems. Other efforts include a p2p infrastructure known internally as "Pastry". Despite public disclosure of research initiatives, Microsoft has remained tight-lipped on the subject of its own grid efforts.

eWeek recently uncovered that the company planned to meld grid computing with .NET, hosting a team of academics at its Remdond, Wash., headquarters in March. The software giant has financed university studies including research by a principle of Globus, Dr. Ian Foster.

"Were glad to see the proponents of centralized computing realizing the future is distributed processing," a Microsoft spokesperson said. "Where processing power is located is orthogonal to Web services - Web services is about how different systems talk to one another."

Globuss Ian Foster -- of Argonne National Laboratories -- sees data resources in science as the key beneficiary of grids at the present time. However, he views resource management -- a segment that latched onto the term grid computing -- as an interesting and important subset that will reduce costs and encourage efficient use of IT resources. Customers and vendors alike are eying cost-cutting measures, and grid computing is taking hold.

As further evidence of that trend, Hewlett-Packard Co. and IDC are holding a conference next week dubbed: "Building Grids: Hype Meets Reality."

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