Future trends: Hot on the grid

Grid computing - sharing spare processor capacity - began to be noticed when it was used as an aid in the search for extra...

Grid computing - sharing spare processor capacity - began to be noticed when it was used as an aid in the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. Now businesses are finding more profitable applications for it. Karl Cushing reports

The pursuit of alien life has until now been the main focus of grid computing. But the ability to access shared resources could not be ignored by the business community indefinitely. At least this is what consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) tells us in its Technology Forecast for 2002-2004, Emerging Patterns of Internet Computing. The report describes a world of distributed and shared resources, where computing and communications become so ubiquitous that they are essentially invisible and organisations satisfy their computing needs in the same way that they buy their electricity or water.

The Internet will become the platform for all information and computing, and the emergence of the grid computing model will see "the amalgamation of computing resources from heterogeneous systems run by different organisations".

But while grid computing is a hot topic and a technology with a great deal of potential, Kevin Findlay, senior technology analyst at PwC's Menlo Park Europe technology centre, says it has to be viewed in the context the bigger picture. "Commoditisation is the key word - grid computing is just a step down that road," he says.

Grid computing allows multiple computers and spare processing power to be applied to a common goal by using intelligent agents on PCs to show when they are able to supply processing power which is managed by middleware.

Grid computing found its first application in the scientific analysis of large amounts of data. Perhaps the best known example is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or Seti@Home, project where thousands of people have pooled their unused processing power to help to analyse radio data from outer space in a bid to find intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Business applications have been relatively limited. However, PwC predicts that grid computing will become prevalent in the commercial world, enabling businesses to share resources, including networks and storage, first within their own organisations and then across organisational boundaries.

According to PwC, the Internet itself will also be transformed. The Net as we know it today is merely "a first attempt at building a reliable and scalable worldwide network", says the report. In a sense, grid computing will carry the mantle of the Internet, doing for resources what it has done for information. It will facilitate the construction of distributed inter-enterprise applications and even support the take-up of Web services, as the development of grid computing will inevitably mean that issues of reliability and security will need to be dealt with - exactly the same issues that PwC believes could otherwise stunt the growth of the Web services model.

If grid computing takes off it will be of interest to specific vertical sectors like the oil industry, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals which have a huge demand for IT and processing power and already use supercomputers. Current high-profile business users trying out grid computing include Pratt & Whitney, Boeing and GlaxoSmithKline.

Last week the Abbey National's Treasury Services (Ants) wing announced that it has been using grid computing to calculate complex risk assessments, which could herald a massive take-up of the model in the financial sector. The IT director of Ants, John Hasson, says grid computing is perfect for repetitive, processor-hungry applications such as risk calculations. "It is massively attractive. You are sweating your assets. It effectively gives you back, or makes available, a lot of your processing power," he says. Hasson believes that the model will be used increasingly in the financial sector and that IT directors across the board should be looking at it more closely. "It is a relatively easy decision to make," he says. "The more you can take advantage of your asset-base the better for the organisation and your shareholders."

This idea of sweating existing assets by using them to carry out tasks normally done by expensive supercomputers or by the time-consuming method of dividing the job up among lots of small PCs is a very attractive carrot for enterprise users, especially in the current harsh economic climate. The bank's treasury, for example, hopes to increase its current use of the processing power provided by its 1,300 PCs from 5% to at least 15% when it rolls the grid computing model out across the division.

However, there can be hidden costs - beyond the initial outlay users will be required to invest in a middleware layer. "In terms of business implementation there will always be an integration cost," warns Joseph Orlando, director of PwC's Menlo Park centre. This will, he says, affect return on investment and people need to be aware of this and factor such costs into their business cases to help to manage expectations.

Some companies and organisations are bound to be unwilling to share their resources with their rivals and will be fearful of opening up access to their information. However, the global nature of the model will at least encourage them to link up the PCs in their local office or different branches onto a grid network.

The technology to set up these local grids is available now - the concept harks back to the idea of clustering IT kit, which is far from new. It is this that PwC sees happening over the next few years. "The inter-organisational grid will come later," says Findlay.

According to Orlando, grid computing is at the point where wireless application protocol was four or five years ago. Although the technology is available there are not many organisations which have found a real economic benefit for adopting it. "The guy who really needs it is the guy who does not have the money - the small- to medium-sized enterprise," Orlando says.

As ever, a key problem will be security. Users who are part of a grid will be running data from other machines and potentially data from other companies. There are worries that the "agent" needed on each PC to monitor for idle processing power could be hijacked. Others have voiced fears that hackers and cyberterrorists will use the grid computing model to join forces and mount more powerful and damaging attacks.

The commoditisation of IT may be further achieved through another development that is still some way off but definitely achievable. This is where the Internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous, to a point where we have "IP dial-tone", the Internet Protocol equivalent of the standard telephone network.

PwC predicts that the current situation, where Voice over IP (VoIP) networks are like islands surrounded by a sea of standard telephone networks, will be transformed to a point where VoIP will be used on an end-to-end basis. This may take some time, says PwC, and will require significant investment in equipment, while established carriers may drag their feet if they perceive it not to be in their interests.

However, Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at the University of California - interviewed for the PwC report - says that IP dial-tone is "coming very quickly". He claims General Packet Radio Service is almost an IP dial-tone.

He says there are still some key issues to resolve, such as pricing, services and who will run it, but if these are ironed out it could have grave consequences for all those carriers that invested heavily in third generation (3G) licences. "3G is going to have a very hard time coming to life and it may end up being a technology that fails," Kleinrock says.

The increased use of wireless Lans could cannibalise demand for 3G mobile services over the next few years, says PwC, and 3G operators will have to move into the Wi-Fi space to survive. The process has already begun, with the increase in wireless hotspots in locations like airport lounges, hotels and coffee shops, although they are a lot more prevalent in the US than in Europe. The PwC report also forecasts that the way that organisations satisfy their IT needs will change.

Companies can already outsource their IT function, or use managed services or an application service provider-type models instead of investing in technology and applications themselves. In the future, says PwC, businesses will increasingly access such resources from a third-party in the same way that they access public utility services like water or electricity, where they are billed based on what they use.

According to PwC, the rise of computing as a utility represents an additional model for the way grid computing could be used at enterprise level, with intelligent middleware allocating computing resources on the grid to help to satisfy service level agreements and quality of service policies.

Naturally there are barriers to the drive towards commoditisation and key aspects like grid computing and computing as a utility. According to the PwC report, the hardest problems to solve will be software-related - infrastructure and hardware issues should be fairly straightforward. Findlay says new standards and software will be required to allow the formation of a single infrastructure and to achieve the vision of a truly distributed operating system.

On the plus side, grid computing has already received the backing of major suppliers such as IBM, Sun, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, which are all developing software for it. Open source options are also being developed and both Findlay and Orlando believe there could be big opportunities for Linux as grids go inter-organisational and global, allowing organisations to adapt the source code and develop their own software to aid collaboration and integration.

How accurate the PwC forecast turns out to be remains to be seen but at least it should provide IT directors with food for thought.

PwC report summary - key points in future of Internet
  • The key emerging trends in IT infrastructure will be "commoditisation, scalability, flexibility, reliability and manageability", incorporating grid computing and computing as a utility

  • The grid computing model will eventually amalgamate computing resources from heterogeneous systems run by different organisations. This will boost demand for open source software like Linux

  • Computing, communications and information will become available anywhere and everywhere

  • These resources will be accessed and billed in the same way as other public utility services like water and gas

  • They will eventually become pervasive to the point where they become an invisible part of everyday life

  • The Internet will become as prevalent as the telephone network, where you can simply pick up a handset and dial, leading to the advent of IP dial-tone.


PwC's technology forecasts
Volume one of the forecast, published earlier this year, looked at developments and future trends in enterprise applications such as enterprise resource planning and supply chain management along with issues such as integration.

Volume two looks at the IT environments in which those applications run.

The next edition, scheduled for early 2003, will look at information security. The forecast is now in its 14th year.

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