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No more idling, go with the grid

Grid computing is a better way to use idle computing power in your enterprise. Here are a few ways to benefit from these new technologies, says Dr Alok Chaturvedi

In the last decade we started seeing an increased use of distributed computing systems in academic and scientific settings. Early examples of distributed computing mostly involved the linking of distributed supercomputing resources to create one large ‘virtual’ supercomputer.

In more recent times, we are seeing less powerful single processor machines linked together to produce some of the most powerful supercomputers on earth. This trend has been greatly facilitated by grid computing.

What It Attempts

Grid computing attempts to solve the problems associated with linking geographically distributed heterogeneous computing resources through a network such as the Internet. It draws its name from the idea of an electronic power grid, where users can tap into the grid to take advantage of idle computing resources.

The central issue addressed by grid architecture is the definition of the protocols necessary to enable interoperability and the sharing of resources between organisations. It is a standards-based open architecture that allows extensibility, interoperability, portability and code sharing.

Thus, grid computing can be viewed as an infrastructure that enables integrated collaborative use of computers, networks, visualisation resources, storage and data sets by scientific institutions that may be owned by different organisations.

Gains Of Grid Computing

The gains to organisations using distributed computing enabled by grid technology can be significant—particularly as previous studies have estimated that organisations tend to use only 20 percent of their desktop computing capacity. However, the collaborative use of computing resources raises a number of interesting problems for businesses.

A specific issue is the problem of sharing and using resources in distributed computing systems such as computational grids and P2P computing networks.

Some Grids

An early implementation of a grid community took place at NASA, creating the Information Power Grid which used grid-based technology to interconnect its supercomputing facilities to allow multi-site simulations of whole space shuttle designs. In Europe, there are 20 grid projects underway, involving scientific and academic institutions such as CERN.

In fact one could argue that Europe is leading the charge in distributed computing or grid technology. They have two major initiatives planned. The first is called ‘Enabling Grids for E-Science,’ which aims to build the largest international computing grid to date. It involves over 70 institutions around Europe with the goal of providing 24-hour access to computing capacity equivalent to 20,000 of today’s most powerful personal computers. The second is a project led by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, which aims to link together seven supercomputing centres around Europe on optical networks.

During the last year, Purdue and Indiana University linked up their supercomputers to run advanced simulations for the US Defence Department. Recently they also joined the NSF-funded Teragrid, which links their computing facilities with computing centres around the country on a high-speed (20 to 40 GB) network. Purdue plans to allocate 15-20 percent of its available compute cycles to this grid.

In May this year, the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications took 70 Sony Playstation 2 Game Consoles, linked them up using off-the-shelf components, and created one of the 500 most powerful supercomputers, running on Linux for $50,000.

If you compare this to the huge costs of buying and operating mainframes or supercomputers, these new low-cost ‘virtual’ supercomputers qualify as a significant event.

Outside Academic Streams

We also saw the rise of distributed computing outside the academic and scientific realm. For example, the nineties saw the rise of seti@home, a downloadable screensaver used to mine astronomical data. It runs in the background when users’ computers are idle, and currently has 3.8 million users in 226 countries involving 77 different processors.

We have also seen the rise of related peer-to-peer networks such as Napster, Gnutella and Kazaa which involve individuals sharing files across the Internet.

The rise of distributed computing systems in the academic and scientific community generated a similar trend in the business sector. We began to see business organisations increasingly using the distributed computing ideas being developed in the scientific and academic sectors. For instance, we initially witnessed the rise of cluster-based computing, which involved loosely-coupled homogenous single or multi-processor systems connected to each other through the Internet.

Vendors With Grids

The trend towards distributed computing has gained momentum in the last two years with the introduction of computational grid-based initiatives by several large technology firms including IBM, Sun, Oracle, HP, Computer Associates and Avaki. HP, for example, began offering an enterprise grid consulting programme to allow firms to respond to enlarged workload by tapping additional computing resources.

Oracle has started shipping its database and application servers (Oracle 10g and Oracle Application 10g) with grid-enabling technology. In January this year IBM introduced grid technology-based products targeted at specific industries that require high-powered computing. These industries include the financial, pharmaceutical, aerospace, life science and automotive sectors. The idea is that companies in these industries can use grid-based solutions to meet their high-end and/or high-throughput computing needs.

Applications On Grid

The types of applications that computing grids are envisaged to solve include advanced financial or numerical analyses, collaborative design and research, scientific analysis such as protein folding or genome mapping, simulations, and analysis of complex systems, among other uses.

These distributed computing systems would also allow firms to handle spikes in demand as well as earn revenues on unused system capacity (assuming firms earn revenues on capacity leased to the computing grid), greatly enhancing the efficiency of their systems while serving as an insurance mechanism for computing demand fluctuations.

Grids In Enterprises

Grid-based solutions and products can be highly effective and useful for businesses.

One financial company implemented grid technology from IBM to run a numerical analysis on a wealth management programme, and cut the time required to complete the analysis from 280 seconds to 15.

Pharmaceutical company Aventis recently implemented data grid technology from Avaki to allow secure, wide-area access to bioinformatics research data while allowing users to significantly increase the speed of applications.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis initially considered buying a supercomputer to design new drugs. However, the realisation that they had access to a ‘virtual’ supercomputer in the unused cycles of the thousands of PCs used in their offices led them to buy a grid-based solution from United Technologies. This resulted in a 2,700 desktop-based computational grid that led to the discovery of several important molecules. The programme was so successful that they plan to expand the grid to include all the 70,000 computers on their corporate network.

In November last year, HP announced that it was linking up some of its high-end computers with BAE Systems (a British aerospace and defence systems company), Cardiff University, the University of Wales, Swansea, and the Institute of High Performance Computing in Singapore. The aim was to create an inter-organisational, international, multiple-platform, distributed computing grid to do advanced simulations and design.

Grid Computing Standards

The increased interest in distributed computing systems has also initiated a movement to establish sets of standards for grid computing. The Open Grid Services Architecture is an attempt to define the mechanisms for creating, managing and exchanging information among entities. It draws from the Globus Toolkit developed at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Southern California.

Advantages For Enterprises

There are many advantages to firms moving to the distributed computing environment.

First, it allows companies to exploit under-utilised resources within the organisation and within other organisations. Additionally, becoming a part of such a system will give companies access to additional resources in times when they may need them. Thus, organisations benefit not only from being able to earn revenues on their idle capacity (from other organisations that are part of the computing grid), but also from being able to take advantage of other organisations’ idle capacity. Such systems would thus allow firms to handle both spikes in computing demand while simultaneously increasing the efficiency of their systems.

Second, organisations belonging to a computing grid are capable of doing jobs that benefit from large-scale parallel processing. They also gain access to hardware and software that are not a part of their own infrastructure. Thus, they can better manage their own investments in computing resources and gain access to a more balanced set of resources.

Classes Of  Useful Applications

The classes of grid applications that businesses might find useful include:

  • Distributed High-Powered Computing (HPC) used in computational science.
  • High-Throughput Computing (HTC) used in large-scale simulations, chip designs and parameter studies.
  • Remote software access used by ASPs and Web services.
  • Data-intensive computing used in drug design, particle physics, and stock prediction.
  • On-demand real-time computing such as medical instrumentation and remote medicine.
  • Collaborative computing used to do combined design, data exploration, and education.

A Few Recommendations

Here are some recommendations for exploiting the emerging high-performance computing environment:

  • A computational environment that can support high-productivity organisations: Building a computational environment for high-productivity activities with new generations of high-end programming environments, software tools, architectures and hardware components would result in many benefits. It would enhance computational efficiency and performance, reduce the time and cost of developing applications, and enhance portability to insulate research and operational applications from system specifics. It would also provide a common user interface standard for ease of use, improve reliability, reduce the risk of malicious activities, and create a scalable architecture for processors, memory, interconnects, system software and programming environments. Further, a computational environment would provide high bandwidth and design point tailorability such as programming models and virtual machines.
  • Support for a large-scale storage network for data intensive applications: Forming a support mechanism for applications with large, high-rate streams called Data Intensive Applications (DIA) would enable the full use of increasing process capabilities and reduce the under-utilisation of system resources due to restrictive data flow and high latency.

Organisations would be capable of many new developments by creating these DIAs. For instance, new data access architectures to optimise processing of high-rate stream data applications could be developed.

Data Flow and Placement architecture could also be made to significantly improve data availability. Another benefit would be to create augmented and adaptive cache techniques to optimise data movement and utilisation. Other advantages include the design of innovative models of traffic, network and control, as well as measurement and validation tools.

  • A dynamic, trusted, collaboration environment where security management is a priority: Developing a dynamic, trusted collaboration environment would support the secure creation of technologies for policy management, group communication, secure services, data sharing and collaboration spaces.

    Examples would include creating a single log-in process, team-based access control, a common user interface, inter-domain key management, a certificate cache architecture, facilities for dynamic delegation, system configuration, administration tools and methods, security documentation of open source systems, and information assurance methods and tools.

  • A unified, high-speed, wired and wireless network infrastructure: The establishment of a Unified Network Architecture would serve as a highly dynamic runtime environment to support fine granularity network services as a basis for describing, provisioning and tailoring resources. It would offer flexible, efficient and secure protocols for communication strategies, scalable network management, and quality of service management. Also, it would supply a quantifiable improvement in network services and fault tolerance, and add multi-tiered mobile security such as dynamic access control and separate traffic and administrative services.

Dr Alok Chaturvedi is the Director of Purdue Homeland Security Institute, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

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