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.
“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.
What drives companies to DigitalRibbon
DigitalRibbon’s Weaver said his company’s differentiator is its electronic marketplace business model.
“Anybody can list their resources,” he said. “We’re growing exponentially in the fact that we are becoming more accepted by the community. We’re developing how the system is going to roll out, but it will be an eBay model, a cogeneration model where if someone’s built a supercomputer and they only need it five or seven days a month and they have the rest of the month free, now they can put it on [DigitalRibbon] and sell that extra capacity.”
Weaver said DigitalRibbon’s customers normally are companies with a problem and no idea where to turn. In one project, DigitalRibbon sold 10,000 core hours to MTV, which needed bandwidth to stress-test its data facility for its Rock Band video game, for about $2.80 an hour. The price tag included consulting fees. “We do a lot of hand-holding,” Weaver said.
He said economics is driving customers’ decisions to turn to DigitalRibbon or one of its competitors for on-demand computing power rather than utilize what’s on hand or buy their own.
“The resources we are dealing with are enormous,” Weaver said. “It wouldn’t be fiscally worth it for MTV to go out and build a $250 million cluster or spend millions to get a 1-gig connection to do a test like this. Then what would they do with the resources? They wouldn’t be interested in owning and maintaining it.”
He said the company’s contracts are typically three weeks to three months long. While the company can do longer contracts-it has access to 10 million computing hours per month, or about 300,000 hours per day or 13,000 hours per hour-longer-term contracts would require a cost/benefit analysis.
DigitalRibbon is focusing on three core vertical markets as it builds its platform: animation and gaming development, biomedical research development, and gas and oil.
“We’re trying to be a supplier of suppliers,” Weaver said. “Eventually one of my big goals is to underpin Sun’s Network.com. If they get a sudden fluctuation in their environment we want to be there. I know their long-term goals are to get off their own computers-there are major spikes and you have to mitigate the ups and downs if you want to.”