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Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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The Guts To Say 'Go'

How Hewitt's grid-computing project got the green light.

Daniel Kaberon had a reputation. If anyone started getting too excited about grid computing, Kaberon could be counted on to throw a big bucket of cold water on it.

"I was a loud voice saying it makes sense if you're looking for extraterrestrials or figuring out the number of vowels in the New York phone book," says Kaberon, director of computer resource management at Hewitt Associates LLC, a human-resources consulting and outsourcing company that manages benefits for one in 20 Americans. "I didn't see how it worked in a business process."

Daniel Kaberon -- Photograph by Chris Lake
Sanjiv Anand -- Photograph by Chris Lake
Perry Cliburn -- Photograph by Chris Lake

Business-technology innovation has many faces at Hewitt, including Kaberon, Anand, and Cliburn.

Photos of Daniel Kaberon, Sanjiv Anand, and Perry Cliburn by Chris Lake
But a few weeks ago, Kaberon and his colleagues flipped the switch on a small grid of Intel-based servers running Linux that solves one of Hewitt's pesky, everyday business-technology problems. The story of how Kaberon stopped being a technology buzz kill and started being an avid supporter says something interesting about grid computing as a commercially viable technology. It also reveals how companies can get value out of an emerging technology in these tight-fisted, budget-conscious times.

Unproven technology is decidedly out of style at many companies. With IT budgets so tight, many executives play it safe with the tried and true and stay away from the bleeding edge. Money and time to experiment with new technologies have to be hidden in budgets, if they can be found at all.

Yet some companies--and Hewitt is one of them--still believe that being early adopters of technology gives them a competitive business edge. In fact, Hewitt thinks that's the only way to get competitive advantage out of business technology: get in early in the adoption cycle, or stay away until all the bugs are ironed out. "We want to be at the very beginning or the very end," says CIO Perry Cliburn.

The grid-computing project shows that philosophy in action.

Hewitt manages HR benefits for 16 million people, processing more than 69 million online transactions per week for companies such as Sony Electronics Inc. and Johnson & Johnson. Hewitt had a problem, though, that centered on one calculation: Figuring an individual's pension benefits based on his or her company's specific plan. Hewitt's traditional approach was to use a mainframe to do that calculation, but the Internet was making that too expensive. Pre-Internet, employees might have gotten a printed individual report when they retired and maybe an update when they were 50 or 55. Now HR managers expect instant access to that number online, as often as they want.

Most pension calculations are easy: Harry worked 17 years for XYZ company under the same pension rules. You need a calculator to do it, not an IBM Parallel-Sysplex mainframe. But every once in a while there's a humdinger: Harry started with XYZ, which was bought by ABC, which merged with CYA, which changed its pension rules five years after the deal, after which Harry took a two-year leave of absence, then came back under the management plan, not the union plan. Calculating the 1% of cases like Harry's consumed 25% of the mainframe-processing power Hewitt used for pension calculations. Having expensive mainframe capacity waiting around for the Harrylike 1% to come through the system wasn't practical. Cliburn told his team to find a better way.

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