Sun to unveil new Grid group, products on Tuesday

Sun Microsystems Inc.has formed a new business unit chartered with developing a line of grid computing products that the company plans to unveil at an event being held next Tuesday at the company’s Santa Clara, California, headquarters.

The unit has been quietly working since late 2004 to develop a new line of grid-based services. The first of these products, expected to be unveiled next Tuesday, will include a new storage grid product as well as an expanded version of the company’s N1 Pay-Per-Use Grid Computing service, which Sun will begin offering on a widespread commercial basis.

The new group is headed by Robert Youngjohns, who already serves as the executive vice president of Strategic Development and Sun Financing. Also referred to as the utility computing group, it was formed several months ago, but next week’s announcements will mark its public unveiling, according to Sun.

Over the last several years, a number industry vendors have embraced the idea of grid computing. Loosely defined as technology that lets computers share resources, grid has been used to describe everything from high performance compute clusters to distributed computing projects like the University of California Berkeley’s SETI@Home, to an emerging set of open standards that will allow computing power to be provided on an as-needed basis, much in the same fashion as electricity or water.

Sun has already dabbled in the grid computing world. It sells distributed computing software called the N1 Grid Engine, which allows computers to share processing resources. Since October, it has been working with partners like Electronic Data Systems Corp. and CGI Group Inc. to provide high such resources as a service customers who require extremely large amounts of high-performance computing power.

And last year, Sun unveiled the Pay-Per-Use service, which it billed as a convenient way for customers to purchase extra compute cycles for as little as US$1 per CPU per hour.

Sun initially offered a free trial of Pay-Per-Use, but was forced to “take the trial site down fairly quickly because we had to go to commercial (deployments),” said Aisling MacRunnels, senior director of utility computing with Sun. Next week, Sun will announce plans to include storage services as well as an enhanced version of the Pay-Per-Use plan, she said.

Though she declined to reveal specifics, MacRunnels said Sun had already invested a large amount of capital in building the six regional centers that will support Sun’s grid services. “This is a new definition of grid. A much broader definition of grid,” she said “We have turned a labs-type thing, with a playground grid, into something that is very commercially scalable.”

Sun’s utility computing efforts are part of a company-wide effort to simplify the way its customers build up their infrastructure, said David Freund, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua New Hampshire. “Sun is really trying to change their business model,” said Freund. “They’re trying to turn it into a subscription base, so you have this nice recurring revenue stream.”

Sun has been building a system that can dynamically discover and utilize resources as they’ve moved onto a grid network, where they can be used as needed, Freund said. “They have been busy building stuff for quite awhile, and those projects have the continued blessing from senior management,” he said. “I think we’ll see in the coming year, some of these things finally roll into public view.”

Customers, however, may not be so eager to jump onto the grid. “I’m very interested in these metering-type concepts to see if they make sense, but for our particular account and the way we grow, it hasn’t been a good fit yet,” said Doug Eney, vice president of information systems engineering with Carnival Corp., based in Miami.

Grid computing may be more useful for customers like retailers, who have sudden spikes in demand, than it is for a cruise ship line like Carnival, where usage patterns are more predictable, Eney said.

And while making CPU cycles available on an as-needed basis might “make a lot of sense,” Eney said that grid-based storage would be a tougher sell, because customers tend to only expand storage capacity, not reduce it.

“I haven’t seen too many companies that are good at deleting data. Once you use it, you use it forever,” he said. “It’s kind of like the average American gaining weight. Once they gain weight they tend not to lose it again.”

For more information on Grid Computing including a primer plus more articles, case studies, white papers, industry links and more, be sure to visit our currently featured Grid Computing Spotlight.

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