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Issue of March 2003 
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In Person: Grid Computing
‘Grids can give business a competitive advantage’

Grid Computing projects have traditionally been associated with Scientific Research. But grids can also add value to business. Michael Monty, Business Development Executive, Grid Computing Business, IBM (ASEAN/South Asia & ANZ) brings us up to date with developments on the grid computing front. By Brian Pereira

What business value do grids and grid applications offer?
Grids can give business a competitive advantage and reduce the time to market. For example designers in a manufacturing company can work collaboratively on a design in real-time, even though they are at separate geographic locations. This enables what we call the Virtual Corporation. It speeds up the design process, for instance, and people need not come to a common drawing board. You are setting up a virtual design environment.
The other area is the financial analytics space. Then there is potential in areas like business intelligence and data mining. Organizations today have vast amount of data. The key focus in the industry is knowledge management, and there's plenty of software for this. The question is how do you analyze this data with the computing resources you have? Most people can't, unless they use supercomputers. The grid computing initiative offers a way to utilize existing resources that we have, which are underutilized.

The other point is that there are so many variables involved. There are a number of databases involved. Take the example of government. Today there's a big focus on permanent security. When you are checking a person's background, you need to verify fingerprints, passports, birth certificates—across different ministries and institutions. A grid offers the technology to extract information from different sources that may be on different computing platforms. These various institutions need not modify their infrastructure, as grids work in heterogeneous environments.

Can you cite some commercial applications for grid computing? How are these being used worldwide?
In the oil industry you have players like Landmark and Geoquest for seismic and reservoir analysis. We have a project in Venezuela for a company that is working on improving the quality of data. They are into oil exploration and use supercomputing clusters. We are seeing lots of interest in the Oil and Gas industry for improving the quality of data through the use of data grids and compute grids.

Would you like to comment on software development for grid apps in business?
There are a number of companies working on grid software, and IBM is working closely with five such companies: Platform Computing, DataSynapse, Avaki, Entropia and UnitedDevices. Even Sun Microsystems has its own grid engine. Each of these companies focuses on a different aspect of grid computing.

Within IBM we use our existing technologies like DB2. With DB2 we have a federated tool, which means we can put together multiple sources of data even from competitive products (for data grids). We also have a tool called DiscoveryLink within DB2 that discovers the data resources within the grid, and it can pull back the information that's relevant to the user query.

How does Grid Computing differ from Distributed Computing? Where do Web services fit in?
Grid technology comes from distributed computing, which has been around for some time. In fact Grid is the next generation of distributed computing. Distributed computing works in a homogeneous environment; grid computing is for heterogeneous environments.

OGSA (Open Grid Services Architecture) and Web services are intrinsically linked. A lot of what the OGSA standards promote are, in fact Web services. We are talking about open standards: XML, Web services description language, SOAP etc. Web services look at application services. It looks at how well I integrate multiple applications. Grid services look at how I design grid middleware so that they can all work together. The grid middleware itself are applications and they have to communicate using Web services.

What are IBM's grid computing initiatives? What are the key focus areas?
IBM's grid offerings combine its existing services, software and hardware, with middleware from other companies such as DataSynapse, Avaki, Entropia, UnitedDevices and Platform Computing. The solutions are designed specifically for R&D, Engineering & Design, Business Analytics, Enterprise Optimization, and Government Development. In all, IBM has 10 industry specific grid offerings. Internally, we have written a number of whitepapers and a Red Book on grid computing. We are educating customers too. IBM has also set up three e-business on demand centers around the world. Within these centers we have grid briefing centers.

In addition, IBM is engaged with the top 20 financial companies on grid computing projects. Some of these are brokerage Charles Schwab and J.P. Morgan. Through grids we are aiming to reduce the time cycle of financial analysis applications by 90 percent. This will enable companies to do calculation throughout the day instead of end of day.

Are there any issues that need to be resolved before grid computing takes off?
Grid computing in its purest form presents a virtual environment. There is a long way to go before we get to that. But there are specific projects for it now. The biggest challenge that I see is a Soft challenge. I don't see a problem with technology because in the long run, technology evolves quickly.

The Soft challenge lies within organizations and government institutions. People working in different departments are averse to the idea of sharing computing resources. Research bodies don't cooperate with each other. Some universities don't like each other.

You need to have a top down approach for grid projects. You need to have someone with authority insisting that everyone works together in the interest of the nation (or organization). In Singapore and the UK, they have national grid computing projects that are supervised by high-level steering committees. They have government servants on these steering committees. The other problem to address is security. But it's not really a grid issue, it's a technology issue.

What is Grid Computing?
Grid computing links several computing resources over a network, to share data and computing resources (processors, storage etc). Since grids support heterogeneous environments, the computing resources on a grid can be on different platforms, and are usually in different geographical locations.

The combined processing power of all computers in a Compute Grid can be equivalent to (or exceed) that of a single supercomputer. So Compute Grids offer (research) institutions tremendous computing power, without the need to invest in an expensive supercomputer.
There are also Data Grids that link disparate sources of data (in various databases). So, with a single query, a user can pull information from several databases that may be at different geographical locations, and on different computing platforms.

So far, it was mainly the scientific & research institutions that leveraged on the potential of grid computing. Grids have also been used for oil exploration, and in the aerospace industry, for design.

The next area for Grid usage is business. Grid computing in business will take off once suitable applications (middleware) become available, and when businesses realize the benefits of sharing computing resources on a grid.

Standards
The Globus Project (www.globus.org) and the Global Grid Forum (www.gridforum.org) are two major worldwide initiatives towards establishing common standards for grid computing. Then there are emerging grid computing standards like OGSA.

The Globus Project is an open source initiative. It is developing the fundamental technologies for building computational grids. It offers the Globus Toolkit (now in version 2.2), an open architecture, open source software toolkit that enables organizations to build computational grids that support their applications.

OGSA (Open Grid Services Architecture) is a proposed evolution of the current Globus Toolkit towards a grid system architecture, based on an integration of Grid and Web services concepts and technologies.

The Global Grid Forum (GGF) is a forum of over 5000 individual researchers and practitioners working on distributed computing or grid technologies.

Brian Pereira can be reached at brianp@networkmagazineindia.com

 
     
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