The role of grids is on the cusp of a fundamental change.

Grids are shifting from being essentially IT infrastructure tools that tie together computing resources to playing a more central role in delivering and providing services to researchers. At the same time, the use of grids is also morphing from one that was exclusively the purview of academics and researchers to a state where organizations view grid technology as critical infrastructure needed to support their business operations.

The shift is duly noted by the Global Grid Forum (GGF), the organization that helps develop grid standards and specifications for grid interoperability. “We started about five years ago within the academic and research community,” says Mark Linesch, who has served as chairman of the GGF since September 2004. But he notes membership has expanded to include members from many commercial organizations representing a wide range of industries.

“We have been successful in phase one — the introduction of grids,” says Linesch. “We focused on compute issues and bringing data together in a federated [type of] approach.”

This focus reflects the use of grids over the time period leading up to today. Notably, for about the last five years, grids have increasingly been used in life sciences and other industries to harness CPU resources to apply more processing power to computational problems.

Deployments over the last few years have proved the value of grid technology, and as such, grids have gained respectability as true corporate platforms for computing. And this leads to the new phase in grids usage that Linesch refers to. “We need to look at grids in a broader distributed computing sense,” says Linesch. “Over the next five years, grids will allow sharing of resources and will connect users to disparate resources enabling [the delivery of] IT as a service.”

To bring grids into this next stage of use, the GGF has research and working groups that are developing grid specifications and best practices for grids in general and for industry-specific applications.

Some efforts cut across all industries. For instance, security and architectural issues like how to support and use Web services technologies are important to anyone interested in grids today. Other issues — such as authentication, provisioning, and data management — that have to do with interoperability, also cut across most applications.

In such areas, the GGF develops its own specifications, but also reaches out to other organizations to leverage the work already done by other groups. These include the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards). The GGF also has liaisons with the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), DMTF (Distributed Management Task Force), and the SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association).

While many issues apply to all users, different industries have different requirements, so some of the GGF groups tackle industry-specific application issues. For instance, there is a life science grid group that looks at the issues related to the integration of IT with life science applications on a grid infrastructure.

Within such groups, the focus is on developing use cases and best practices for a particular industry. For instance, a healthcare effort naturally could use all of the general grid architectural specifications, but it also focuses on how to meet HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act) regulations in a grid environment.

To move grids into that next level of enablers of IT services, the GGF will use next week’s GridWorld conference in Boston, Mass., to announce a formal roadmap. The roadmap will set grid computing and grid computing standards into a broader distributed computing context.

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