Sun stumbles with grid rollout

Sun Microsystems Inc. has delayed the rollout of the Sun Grid, an Internet-based “utility” service that has been under development since late last year. A lack of computing resources has pushed back the public launch of Sun Grid, originally slated to go live in the first few months of 2005, to as late as July, Sun executives said.

An “early access” version of Sun Grid is presently available to certain Sun customers, but a number of recent large-scale grid deployments have forced Sun to divert systems that were to be used for the public site, said Aisling MacRunnels, senior director of utility computing with Sun.

“We can’t open that up until we have a substantial number of CPUs behind it,” she said of the Sun Grid Web site. “All of those CPUs that we thought were going to be [used] are being reallocated to a very large number of banks.”

MacRunnels declined to provide the names of any Sun Grid customers, but said that the first such announcements would be made within 30 days.

When it becomes publicly available, Sun Grid is expected to operate like a power or water utility. It will deliver raw computing and storage capacity at the flat rate of US$1 per CPU (central processing unit) per hour and $1 per gigabyte per month. Sun Grid resources are even expected to be traded as a commodity on the Archipelago Holdings Inc. electronic exchange, the company has said.

Three regional centers, based in Virginia, New Jersey, and London, have been set up to power the Grid, and the company is working on more than 30 proof-of-concept projects with companies in the financial services, petroleum and entertainment industries.

Sun had hoped to operate six regional centers at this point, but technical and logistical issues have prevented this from happening, MacRunnels said.

According to analysts, the Santa Clara, California, computer maker has lagged behind rivals Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and IBM Corp. in delivering utility-type services like Sun Grid, which allows customers to connect to remotely managed servers and pay only for the computing resources that they use. But the publicly available Sun Grid has been promoted as something quite different from HP or IBM’s utility products, which are normally customized offerings built for large companies.

Sun is also still hammering out a number of legal and business-related issues as it tries to make Sun Grid available to all, said Dan Hushon, chief technologist of strategic development with Sun. “This really comes down to what is the market willing to buy,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is put something out there that nobody wanted to buy.”

These other issues include details of the Sun Grid Web site’s user interface and legal contracts, and even specifics of how support calls will be handled, Hushon said. For example, the company is still figuring out how to handle any legal liabilities that it may take on by making a public computer grid widely available. “If you think about it you could take a grid job and turn it into the biggest spambot in the world,” he said.

Shrinking revenue has forced Sun to make workforce reductions over the last few years, and the company has made difficult choices over resource allocation, said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire.

“Sun is short-staffed right now and short-resourced,” he said. “I think there’s a lot on Sun’s plate. They’re trying to fix their engagement model and their basic value proposition to the world. They’re short-handed in terms of cycles to get this done.”

To add to Sun Grid’s woes, the executive overseeing the project resigned last week. Robert Youngjohns, who was executive vice president of Sun’s strategic development financing group, left to take a job as president and chief executive officer of San Jose, California, Callidus Software Inc.

Youngjohns was replaced by Sun’s former vice president of Wall Street Technologies Stuart Wells.

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