Grid technology links groups of computers and storage devices to allow organisations to allocate those resources dynamically. But does it have a wider potential? Could all UK companies harness its benefits and, most importantly, is it more than simply the latest technology buzzword?
These questions have been answered in Unlocking the Grid, a report from the Information Age Partnership (IAP), which is chaired by Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry. The IAP has set up a working group to identify the potential for exploitation of grid technologies within the UK.
IAP's Grid Taskforce found that the UK's "strength" industries of digital media, financial services, engineering and life sciences are well placed to exploit the potential benefits of grid computing and sounded a warning to businesses if they do not.
The report said the government should act quickly to apply and exploit grid computing across a wide range of industry sectors. Early adoption will allow these sectors to adjust and exploit service-oriented markets to retain their competitive positions and develop new products, processes and business arrangements.
Specifically, access on demand to high-power, reconfigurable IT resources, where computing is a utility and software is a service, will drastically change the way UK companies work. By providing access to resources more efficiently, by combining resources and services in a way not previously possible, and by allowing the exploitation of dynamic high-value trading relationships, grid computing will enable UK firms to greatly increase their competitiveness.
Pilot projects in user applications have already been carried out, such as in life sciences (computational biology, genomics), engineering (simulation and modelling, just-in-time maintenance) and healthcare ( diagnosis and telematics).
The Grid Taskforce recommended further pilot projects focus on the broader business community, where it sees the most opportunity for benefit.
These pilots would be carried out through its recommended pilot, the Grid Services Consortia, and provide core UK expertise in grid exploitation by bringing together IT and telecoms service providers, major stakeholders, middleware providers, specialist small and medium-sized enterprises and application tools.
So what does the future hold for grid technology? Over the next two years it is most likely to be introduced into large organisations as an internal enterprise grid built behind firewalls, perhaps with controlled links to external grids. Typically these early users will achieve IT cost reduction, increased efficiency, some innovation and flexibility in business processes.
In the next five years and beyond, grid computing will prove it is far more than the latest buzzword. As standards-based tools are developed and consumers begin to access virtualised data resources, it will become a prerequisite for business success - central to business processes, new types of service and a central component of product development and customer solutions.
l John Higgins is director general of suppliers' group Intellect and chairman of the Information Age Partnership Grid Taskforce
Unlocking the Grid report www.intellectuk.org/grid
This was first published in July 2004