IBM unveils grid computing concept for future IT

Having jumped into the world of Linux with a US$1 billion commitment this year, IBM Corp. is now about to jump into what it thinks will be the next big direction in IT: grid computing.

The idea, to link together and harness the massive combined computing power of all of IBM's worldwide data centers to provide customers with the computing resources they need on demand, could help businesses reduce IT costs while expanding capabilities, according to Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM.

In an announcement Thursday, IBM said it has been chosen to further the development of a "national grid" in the United Kingdom being created by the British government for collaborative scientific research. The project, which utilizes the combined computing power of remote data centers, will also be used to show how the system could work worldwide for science and business.

The financial terms of the deal weren't announced.

"This is about the next big thing" after the creation of the Internet, said John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology for IBM. Such a network could help create enough computing power globally to find breakthrough medical discoveries, better designs for safer cars and other advances to benefit society, he said.

While the concept is similar to peer-to-peer networks, clustered supercomputers and scientific projects such as SETI@home, in which desktop PCs are being used at off-peak times to help search for extraterrestrial life, grid computing is unique because it would allow multiple users to work simultaneously rather than focusing the computing power on one task.

For business IT, the gains could include the creation of a huge virtual computing environment that provides corporate Web sites with seamless and almost limitless capacity backups, he said. Rather than having to overspend to provide for occasional peak needs, companies could use the resources of the grid network on demand.

"We see this as being very applicable to e-business," Patrick said. "It has some further maturing to do, but we're quite confident ... that we can get there. It's very real."

The big push for grid computing is to provide the ability to share computer resources to do things that are now seen as undoable, he said. "It's very much like where the Web was in 1995" as it began to be used by the public and business, he said. "Six years ago, people were saying, 'This Web thing is interesting, but nobody will ever be doing their banking on it.'

"We knew it wasn't CB radio," Patrick said of the Internet. "It's here to stay."

Grid computing would use the Internet to tie together the data centers like an "e-utility" under the IBM model, Patrick said. The grids would be built from clusters of servers joined using standard protocols and open-source technologies, including Linux. Data security would be an important part of the mix to ensure that data from individual users is protected.

IBM will use another emerging technology, its eLiza self-management project, to help control and operate the grid.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the benefits could be real if grid computing technologies can be adapted to business needs.

If data centers can be harnessed together to assign workloads dynamically to machines across the grid, then customers could get faster and better performance for their IT dollars, he said.

"The challenge is that most commercial applications don't work this way," so they don't need such dynamic resource shifting, Kusnetzky said.

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