Today, there are two approaches to increase the performance of computer hardware. The first, scale-up, involves the installation of increasingly powerful, multi-processor server hardware, to enable IT directors to achieve the greatest performance from a single server.
The HP Superdome, Unisys ES7000 and Sun Fire E20K are examples of machines that allow IT directors to get the most from a single server, enabling them to simplify their datacentre by consolidating hardware.
The second approach is scale-out or grid computing. Here, rack upon rack of low-cost commodity PC servers running Intel or AMD processors can be configured as computing grids. Under the right circumstances, a given piece of computational work can then be divided up so that each processor in the grid is able to run a portion of the overall task. As a result, the more processors available to the grid, the faster the computational task can be completed.
One example of such a grid is run at investment bank Merrill Lynch, where a follow-the-moon policy means that complex trading and risk analysis algorithms can take advantage of spare computer capacity as the working day ends in different regions of the world.
Analyst firm Gartner defines a grid as the application of server resources from more than one owner to address single, large tasks. For some organisations, this means that they run and manage part of the grid, and a partner organisation runs and manages a different part. For others, a grid might be run and managed in-house but span global locations.
Grid computing also covers external providers that lease computer resources that can be combined with in-house assets in order to boost the processing of certain large tasks, says Carl Claunch, research vice-president of servers and storage at Gartner.
Grid technology is gaining recognition among businesses because grids can be used as a pool of computing resources, regardless of the location of the servers. This allows operators either to schedule or to allocate jobs according to which areas of the grid are free.
Since their inception in 1995, grids have offered the scientific and academic communities a way to solve taxing problems such as protein folding, earthquake simulation and climate modelling. Grids are also being used to manipulate DNA data and to search for extraterrestrial life.
Now grids are infiltrating the commercial world, and users are harnessing huge amounts of computing power to boost their business.
Global banking group HSBC uses grids to carry out derivatives trades, which rely on making numerous calculations based on future events. The bank also uses grids for risk analysis.
Defence and aeronautics firm BAE Systems is using a Microsoft-based grid, hosted by the University of Southampton, to improve the aircraft design process by modelling aerodynamic flight data.
Grids are not only linked to number-crunching tasks. Automobile magazine and website AutoTrader is using grids to support the rapid expansion of its online motor exchange operations. Were it not for the investment in grid technologies, a Unix server upgrade would have been necessary, which would have meant a capital investment of more than £1m, AutoTrader said.
The company’s grid runs an Oracle 10g database and Real Application Clusters on Sun v40z Opteron servers running Red Hat 3AS.
Oracle, Microsoft and other suppliers have entered the grid software market with products such as Oracle 10g and Microsoft Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003.
These systems run on commodity Intel and AMD server hardware platforms such as Hewlett-Packard Proliant or Bladesystem servers.
In addition, grid software specialists such as DataSynapse and Platform Computing have helped businesses to develop grids through the use of their grid software platforms and consultancy expertise.
Such platforms offer IT management and application devlopment support for grids. This enables the application to scale across the grid to take advantage of free servers.
Business use of grids is still low compared with academic and scientific use, but it is growing, says Michael Speyer, senior analyst at Forrester Research. Forrester’s 2006 data shows grid usage for US enterprises at 8% of total grid use, and this 8% contains a wide spread of industries.
The biggest users of commercial grids are finance organisations and insurance firms, according to Speyer. These sectors lead the way in commercial computer grid usage, at 12% of total enterprise users.
Insurance companies need to carry out risk analysis to comply with industry regulations, and grids offer a way to carry out large-scale computations of risk.
Next are public sector enterprises, which account for 8% of business users. These include government departments as well as education and healthcare services.
Manufacturing firms are the third highest users of grids, at 6%. The aerospace, automotive and high-tech manufacturing industries use computer grids for design automation chores.
Oil and gas firms use the technology for seismic exploration and reservoir analysis, and pharmaceutical firms use grids for the discovery and modelling of proteins, new drugs and genetics.
Pharmaceutical firms face a competitive market as they race to get new drugs out early, and each day gained means millions of pounds in additional revenue and profits, says Claunch.
Business services and retail and wholesale organisations are also starting to adopt enterprise grids, according to Forrester.
Computer grid technology is also being used for the rapid analysis of new consumer packaging and logistics planning, as well as for data transformation for datawarehousing and analytics.
But grid technology is still considered to be in its infancy and has several problems associated with it. “Grid computing has many issues that arise directly from the multiple ownership domains that participate,” says Claunch.
Software licensing methods used by third-party software suppliers can also be a problem. Like virtualisation, grid technology might split an application over multiple servers, so if a product is licensed on a fixed number of machines, or by specific server serial numbers, this may break the licence agreement.
“Most of the new and more challenging problems that arise with grids are a consequence of the multiple management points: conflicts over priorities, difficulty with cost allocation, security questions, and challenges over funding upgrades to the grid, among others,” says Claunch.
Some users have also admitted that when problems arise in the grid, trawling through the server logs to locate the problem can be a complex and time-consuming exercise.
But Claunch argues, “For those early adopters of grid computing, the business benefits are so large that they quickly overshadow the issues.”
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This was first published in February 2007