Software // Enterprise Applications
01:05 PM

Slow Going On The Global Grid

The dream of global grid computing, as exemplified by the Globus Toolkit, hasn't caught on with most businesses. But fusing web-services standards with grid-computing protocols could begin to change that.

In December, the three spun off Univa Corp., a private company, to take on the development, licensing, bug-fixing, and tech-support chores that could make grid computing, Globus-style, more attractive to companies. In addition to the business-friendly version it plans to sell, Univa will continue to offer a free version under the software's open-source license. Last month, they also got HP, IBM, Intel, and Sun to put up $250,000 each to fund the Globus Consortium, which plans to port Globus to Windows (it currently runs on Unix and Linux); integrate it with enterprise-resource-planning applications, clustering software, and identity-management systems; manage the software's technical road map; and help fix bugs in a predictable way.

"For [global grid computing] to take off commercially, it was going to require us to do it," says Tuecke, Univa's CEO. Globus can do technical computing out of the box, he says, but it wasn't built to handle business apps.

Globus founder Ian Foster gears up for new release.

Globus founder Ian Foster gears up for new release.
Globus version 4 includes a software layer, the Web Services Resource Framework, that fuses Web-services standards for functions such as security and messaging with grid-computing protocols, so users can write software to a common interface that runs on a grid without knowing the technical ins and outs of each machine it touches. "The mismatch between grid services and Web services is going away," says Greg Astfalk, chief scientist in HP's office of strategy and technology.

That's good news for big tech vendors that think Globus has the potential to create demand for their products. According to research firm IDC, worldwide sales of software for virtual processing, which includes grid computing, grew 22% last year, to $1.5 billion, compared with just 6% for operating systems. SAP is testing special grid versions based on the Globus Toolkit of three of its business apps--E-commerce, manufacturing planning, and human resources--with a handful of U.S. and European customers. "They love it," says advanced technology VP Vishal Sikka. "The big benefit would be not having to plan how this software is run. That's a major [total-cost-of-ownership] saver." SAP plans to include grid-computing functions in the next version of its NetWeaver development and run-time environment, due next year. Sun is looking at building products based on GT4. And at the GlobusWorld 2005 conference in Boston this month, IBM said it will include the Web Services Resource Framework in the WebSphere Emerging Technology Toolkit, now being tested, and the next full release will include the technology. Lining up Globus with Web services should "spark the development" of new apps and expand the market," IBM VP Al Bunshaft says in an E-mail.

It has been a long road to get to this point. Few vendors have aggressively packaged the current Globus version, now nearly 3 years old, with their products. Programmers lacked standard APIs for getting data into and out of grids, an improvement promised in GT4. A set of specs called the Open Grid Services Infrastructure for providing data security, balancing workloads, and transferring files wasn't compatible with Web services, and it didn't work well with widely used development tools. "The commercial tools out of the box would barf on this," says Marty Humphrey, a computer-science professor at the University of Virginia.

Even with the improvements, IT uptake may be slow. GlaxoSmithKline plc, the $38 billion-a-year drugmaker, has been using grid-computing technology from United Devices to build a "pretty powerful virtual supercomputer" from 1,500 desktop PCs in the United States and England and to schedule jobs on clusters, says Sam Thomsen, president of North Coast Idea Co., a Glaxo consultant. Thomsen is part of a committee that provides feedback on Globus to Foster and his collaborators, and he says GT4 is a "major contender" for use in an EU-funded grid project to encourage companies to collaborate in the auto, aerospace, and pharmaceutical industries, which Glaxo has joined. But Globus' emphasis on creating virtual teams runs against drug companies' reluctance to share anything of intellectual value. "That's becoming more interesting, but there's still not a lot of collaboration in the pharmaceuticals business," he says. "Globus almost adds a layer that's completely unnecessary."

Philosophical problems aren't the only ones dogging Globus. For one thing, its founders aren't even sure who's using the software, so it's hard to gauge design requirements. Foster counts 50,000 downloads from Globus' Web site last year, though "that's not a very useful piece of data," he admits. IBM, for instance, won't say which companies or how many are using its Grid Toolbox development tools, which incorporate Globus. Maintenance costs also are too high. Installing and managing grid software eats up about a third of grid projects' IT budgets, according to a survey of more than 60 companies by IT research outfit the 451 Group.

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