Utility computing plugs into Canadian landscape

Few industries have successfully sold overkill as much as IT. For the vast majority, the desktop is a Lamborghini cruising in the bike lane. The e-mail server earns its way, but that is only because spam has forced it to. And at the very high end — the stratosphere dominated by grids and supercomputers — companies are forced to build systems to handle peak demands, even when they are few and far between. Finally, after years of talk and a few technological breakthroughs, the tide seems to be changing as true utility computing is taking its first tentative steps.

For people like Randy Mullin, utility computing’s arrival is none too soon. When his Ottawa-based development team at Tundra Semiconductor Corp. used to test a new product design they ran it on Tundra’s hardware. The machinery was costly and, far too often, idle. But Mullin had no other choice. In the world of hardware manufacturing it is imperative that any potential design flaw is caught during software-based design testing. If a flaw is caught at the production level, losses are measured in the millions. Less costly and slower computers could do the job but the price for delay is often market share.

In tight economic times companies seek to cut costs.

One place to look is at any expensive high-end hardware sitting idle. For Mullin there is now an alternative. He and his team rent computer processing cycles from a local Ottawa-based company.

About a year ago GridWay Computing Corp. started to offer customers the use of its Sun Microsystems Inc.-based computer grid to crunch numbers at a cost significantly lower than building an internal high-powered computing environment. In essence, Gridway built one of Canada’s first commercial computing utilities, where customers can purchase computer-processing capability as they need it.

Mullin, Tundra’s director of engineering, said software simulations may require tens of thousands of hours of CPU cycles. The ability to use external cycles when intense computing power is needed is a cost effective alternative to investing in additional hardware, he said.

Using VLAN (virtual local area network) technology and through a partnership with Telecom Ottawa Ltd., Gridway offers customers a virtual extension into its server farm, said Chris Kramer, GridWay’s founder. The connection is via Telecom Ottawa’s 10BGbps Ethernet network.

Earlier this month, Sun also announced its own utility initiative. The service costs US$1 per hour, per CPU, at one of four new data centres, including one to be built in Toronto. With Sun’s Solaris 10 technology, individual data sets are placed in virtual containers and therefore never interact with anyone else’s code (one of the technological breakthroughs), said Anil Gadre, Sun’s chief marketing officer. Gadre said Sun’s own calculations have put the cost of hosting an internal network at between US$8 and US$12 per CPU per hour. Economy of scale allows Sun to charge less, Gadre said, and the company has every intention of making money from this venture.

But the road ahead for utility computing is still untravelled. “Conceptually this isn’t entirely new but what hasn’t been proven…is how wide spread this is going to become for commercial computer applications,” said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with Illuminata Inc. The problem is that many enterprise-level applications, like ERP, are tightly linked to other applications. Thus it is difficult to separate their data sets from other applications.

For the most part, these are not prime contenders for the utility model, but specific portions — those that require intensive computational power, such as year-end reports — are candidates. New software solutions to easily separate this critical data from large complex systems will be needed.

At GridWay, some of the application conundrum is solved by having all customers (right now less than 20) fully license whatever version of software they need. Customers can either transfer the application with data each time or have it stored with GridWay.

Another, more pressing, hurdle is the need to overcome the corporate tradition of homeostasis. Many companies don’t like to change the way they do things, Haff said. So when there is a notion of increased risk — after all, VLAN or not, the data is leaving the corporation’s warm embrace to be processed elsewhere — there is trepidation.

This psychology of trust “is going to be one of our biggest challenges,” Kramer admitted. To overcome it will require some hand-holding and a lot of education, he added. The first step is to explain to executives that they are probably already sending data over a VLAN to external offices within the company and that sending data to GridWay is inherently no riskier. One future goal for Kramer is to certify his company with what is known as orange-book security status, which means the company is vetted to do business with any highly-classified government organization. Orange-book accreditation refers to the U.S. Department of Defense Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria and represents the highest possible security rating.

Today those who use GridWay’s CPU cycles do not generally encrypt their data in transit, Kramer admitted. But those customers that use GridWay for back-up, site mirroring or storage usually do so before data leaves corporate servers, he said.

With these utility-model offerings, companies like Sun and GridWay are also on the leading edge of a curve that is changing how engineering and design companies view their own creations.

Kramer said there is a growing trend of executives telling engineers to think about developing technology in a different way. Engineers are being told to design without thinking about the constraints of limited computer power and to instead focus on “a world of unlimited compute power,” he said.

For now GridWay is focused in the Capital-region semiconductor market. But in the future, Kramer sees the bio-tech and financial sectors as potential customers.

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