Pay-as-you-go computing on the rise

Despite some of the recent vendor announcements touting on-demand technology, one analyst maintains that utility computing in its truest form has a long way to go.

Last month, Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International Inc. (CA) unveiled a technology to discover and manage business processes, code-named Sonar, and four new solutions to support its on-demand, or utility computing model – the idea of pooling system resources and then using the capacity as needed by better aligning it with business processes and applications.

The strategy followed similar roadmaps from IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., as well as Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Veritas Software Corp.

However, varying vendor definitions of on-demand could result in customer confusion, warned Dan McLean, director of outsourcing and IT utility services research at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

“Utility computing is a big buzzword,” and pay-for-what-you-use is the part of the utility model customers are seeing the most these days, McLean said. But “there are other sides to [utility computing] too, in terms of the interoperability between all the other types of applications out there, whether I can use data from one application with other application,” McLean added.

The key to true utility computing, he explained, is the “common fabric” of infrastructure necessary to link services seamlessly so that what is delivered from one service provider is essentially the same as what another provides – much like water or hydroelectricity.

This is what is being introduced to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, though it is more akin to setting up one’s own power plant than buying from a publicly available grid. As it stands today at the university, though the change is underway, “each system has its own box, each system has its own back up, each system has its own storage – it is just inadequate,” said Ted Dodds, associate vice-president of information technology at UBC.

At most companies, day-to-day computing needs are far from consistent. An example of this at UBC is the registrar’s office. Most of the year the load is a “tiny fraction” of its peak September use, Dodds said. But come September, when ten of thousands of students need to register, the department requires all the compute power it can lay its hands on.

To solve this, as well as other computing problems, the university is setting up a utility model using Sun Microsystems’ Sun ONE solution where departments will be able to buy “cycles and storage” on demand from centrally located boxes. It “takes away capacity issues and worry for those departments which need it,” he said.

Though Dodds admits the exact pricing model has yet to be worked out, it is a less critical issue for the university than overall performance. “We are really focused on what is in the best interest of the academic community of UBC,” he said.

In all, the university will have about 50,000 users. UBC should have the entire solution in place in two to three years, Dodds said. The registrar’s office will start using the utility solution in 2004.

There is some consensus that, at least for now, the internal utility model is the best fit for large-scale enterprises, especially when company-wide demand is large. But for smaller operations or departments with less frequent demands and no budget to set up their own utility grid, solutions are available today.

Flexibility was what Guelph, Ont.-based Ontario College Application Services (OCAS) Inc., a provider of administrative systems and application processing services for Ontario colleges, needed every February during its peak application processing time. The organization’s CEO, Greg Hughes, said OCAS signed up for IBM’s utility computing services to help deal with the “extraordinary number of Web site hits within such a short period,” while avoiding the cost of a huge infrastructure that would only be used to handle a peak once a year.

“Instead of paying for it the rest of the year, it’s a much better arrangement for a company like ours to…be able to buy a service that matches our annual work cycle,” Hughes said.