A Compute Marketplace in the Cloud

Startup DigitalRibbon is looking to monetize on-demand computational resources.

On the tailwinds of Sun Microsystems' Network.com and Amazon.com's EC2, grass-roots startup DigitalRibbon is looking to start a revolution in trading computational resources in the cloud.

The concept: Build a virtual marketplace where big suppliers of computational power-mammoth computing entities like the National Center for Supercomputing-can put their excess computing resources up for sale to companies looking for short-term but high-impact computational power. The goal is to both monetize and standardize computational resources, and to revolutionize the way computing power is bought and sold.

"We really do think this is a concept that is going to change the world," said DigitalRibbon CEO Erik Weaver. "As large volumes of resources come online, there [is] a whole new set of applications and businesses that can emerge."

While the model sounds simplistic, the market is young-Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud platform is still at the beta stage-and like any in-the-cloud commodity purchasing scheme, it comes with its own set variables.

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"As one tries to monetize computing power, you have to understand the aspects of it," Weaver said. "A lot of people think it's just computing power on demand, but the market is much more dynamic than that. ... If you're trying to create a unit for measuring computer power, it's not like electricity, where you can measure a kilowatt. I think in the future it's going [to play] out a lot like the futures market, where there are a lot of varieties of wheat [for example]. When you're talking about supercomputers, grid computing, you're going to have a lot of different flavors."

The field is so new that IT firms like Gartner, Forrester Research and AMR Research haven't yet published research materials on it. However, there are some big-name companies involved.

Sun's Network.com offers pay-for-use access to a set of infrastructure Web services from the Sun Grid Compute Utility. The site, according to documentation from Sun, acts as a portal for developers, partners and users to "create, publish, and access application services predicated on Sun and other open-source technologies." One pay-as-you-go offering provides access to parallel computing resources for $1 per CPU hour. In a manner similar to the consumer model of buying goods over the Internet, customers can use PayPal (or a purchase order) to buy processing power and access applications.

Amazon.com's EC2 beta, also aimed at developers, is a Web service that provides "resizable compute capacity in the cloud," according to the company's Web site. Essentially what EC2 provides is Web service interfaces that enable users to requisition machines for use. The machines can be loaded with users' custom application environments where things like network access permissions can be managed, according to the site.