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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.

When grid computing leaped from the nation's research labs into business computing three years ago, its promise of delivering supercomputer power to desktop PCs and unshackling users from the limits of their department's technology looked boundless. Grid computing, powered by public-domain software called the Globus Toolkit that was spreading across university and government labs, would pan the Internet for the computers and databases best able to solve complex calculations. Tech-industry CEOs, including IBM's Sam Palmisano and Hewlett-Packard's recently deposed Carly Fiorina, pumped up the benefits of data centers that could configure themselves to grab computing power from in-house or faraway machines. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told InformationWeek three years ago that grid computing represented "the Holy Grail of computer science."

But a funny thing happened to grid computing on its way up the corporate ladder. Practically no one in business is running the current Globus software that HP, IBM, Microsoft, and others were counting on to organize their customers' computers, disk drives, databases, and operating systems into powerful networks that would span organizational boundaries.

Johnson & Johnson is no longer sponsoring the Globus Toolkit, but grid computing is saving its R&D unit money, David Neilson, Johnson & Johnson's Dir. of Drug Discovery says. -- Photograph by Ken Schles

Johnson & Johnson is no longer sponsoring the Globus Toolkit, but grid computing is saving its R&D unit money, Neilson says.

Photograph by Ken Schles
Johnson & Johnson's $22.1 billion pharmaceuticals research-and-development unit has two grid projects under way, each geographically contained and centered on its own networks. David Neilson, director of drug-discovery information management, expects these projects will save the company "in the seven- to eight-figure bracket" over five years by recruiting low-cost computers to handle tasks once done mostly by expensive specialty machines.

Johnson & Johnson was an early sponsor of the Globus Toolkit project, an effort by researchers at Argonne National Lab, the University of Chicago, and the University of Southern California to develop open-source software that could link distant computers and users over the Net. "We're not [a sponsor] anymore," Neilson says. For its virtual drug-screening pilot in Belgium that recruits the spare power of 400 PCs and 64 Linux servers and for a stateside effort to model clinical drug trials using more than 100 PCs and workstations, Johnson & Johnson has been using commercial software from United Devices Inc., which can schedule jobs across PCs or servers under one roof, but whose capabilities fall far short of the promise of building global grids.

So why isn't Globus getting a chance? "I'm intellectually interested in it," Neilson says. "But for something that has to work 12 hours a day, we're much more inclined to go with a product that can be brought in quickly" and includes tech support to "protect the capital investment."

An ever-changing technology road map and a current version that's considered balky and out of step with industry standards not only has created a problem for Globus, but it's holding back grid computing from fulfilling its original promise. Sun Microsystems, United Devices, and a handful of small companies supply software that can distribute computing tasks across in-house machines, making sure their power gets maximized. But only Globus can create virtual teams of users at different companies, government agencies, and universities. Far-flung users working with NASA or Europe's CERN particle-physics lab can sign onto a grid of machines running Globus, and the toolkit automatically figures out what IT they're allowed to access, and when.

The perception that Globus is fine for eggheads but not a solid product for business could be about to change. This week, the researchers who wrote it plan to issue a second test release of version 4 of the Globus Toolkit, which should improve spotty quality and at long last meld the grid-computing protocols that let users write to a common software interface to share CPU cycles, files, and data with the Web-services standards. A final version of the software is due in April from the Globus Alliance, the open-source project founded by Ian Foster, a senior scientist at Argonne and a University of Chicago professor; professor Carl Kesselman from USC; and Steve Tuecke, a former Argonne manager.

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