Grid Computing: Fulfilling the Promise of the Internet

by Willy Chui

The promise of grid computing -- of Web-based services providing universal access to information and computing in a collaborative environment -- is as real as it is seductive. In fact, it's only fitting that the Internet, born out of a vision of collaboration, should now come full circle to fulfill that vision.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Internet, which originally linked universities and laboratories around the United States as an outgrowth of a Defense Department project begun in 1969.

How the baby has grown! The Internet began to expand from its inception, and with the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1989, it is becoming ubiquitous. It will be as much a part of people's lives as the radio, television, and telephone -- all of which will no doubt reside on the Internet in the not-too-distant future.

The Internet's explosive growth has been fueled by a single factor: open standards -- an agreement upon a common set of "protocols" enabling computers to communicate with one another. Standards also brought Internet mail into existence, which has had an incalculable impact upon the way we communicate with each other. And yet another set of standards created the Web, which has allowed everyone with a computer to trade information.

It did not take long for business to see the potential of the Internet. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find a company that does not use the Internet for emailing sales information to customers, or displaying Website "showrooms," or integrating sales and supply-chain activities in order to maintain optimal inventory levels.

As exciting as the Internet's past 30 years have been, they're only a shadow of what's to come. We're already catching glimpses of the future in projects sponsored by universities and pharmaceutical research labs. By downloading a special screen saver, we can allow our personal computers to hook into a worldwide network when we're not using the machines. Together, this network processes information as part of the search to find cures for cancer, HIV, and, most recently, smallpox -- processing that would take an individual computer weeks or months, but can be done in days through this voluntary "grid."

In a somewhat different form, grid computing -- a Web-based operation that will allow companies to share computing resources on demand -- is where we're headed. Simply put, grid computing uses more of a server's computing power. Today's computers, like human brains, typically operate at only a small percentage of their capacity; they often sit idle as a processor waits for data. On the grid, the idle time of hundreds -- even thousands -- of servers can be harnessed by any customer needing a massive infusion of processing power.

Just as the electric grid provides power to the consumer, the computing grid distributes all sorts of computing resources to solve problems. In the process, a grid can give rise to "virtual organizations" -- ever-changing groups of individuals and institutions exploiting the resources of the grid for a variety of purposes, much the way that individuals in the same household exploit electricity for their own needs.

Grid computing is the logical, and desirable, outcome of several factors. First, the idle time inherent in computing means that by working on a grid, computers can share operations according to their abilities and unused capacities; thus, information will be processed with maximum efficiency. Second, the advent of broadband enables networked computers to share data constantly at high speeds -- critical to the functioning of any sophisticated network.

Of greatest importance, though, is the collaborative culture that the Internet gave us in the first place. Without common protocols, the Web would be a Tower of Babel. Businesses, and the companies that supply technology to business, are understanding that the virtues of open standards -- flexibility, scalability, and adaptability -- are keys to the success of information technology systems and to the ability of those systems to contribute to an attractive bottom line. Businesses are thus developing IT systems that embrace open standards, and are constructing those systems around "middleware": software that enables different technologies to interact with one another smoothly and transparently.

Capacity, speed, and open systems are setting the stage for the leap to grid computing -- for the Internet (or an intranet) itself to become a computing platform. The resources we desire will be at our fingertips, but they will reside on the Internet rather than in single computers or on local servers. We will engage these resources through secure channels, as we do now when we transact business on the Internet. But we will never again wish that we had more storage capacity, more data-manipulation capabilities, or another suite of applications. The Internet's "virtual computer" will be distributed worldwide rather than existing in one place. It will provide us with everything we need, whenever we need it, and will enable us to coordinate our work with anyone, anywhere, without technology conflicts. Like power grids, computer grids will become an essential element of our infrastructure, operating invisibly except in the rare cases when a problem arises.

Like Linux and other new technologies, grid computing is emerging first in the scientific and technical communities, enabling scientists and engineers to collaborate in applications across institutions and around the world in disciplines such as high-energy physics, life sciences, and engineering design. For example, the Mayo Clinic is developing a system for linking its own medical database with vast external public and private data sources in order to develop more-effective patient treatments. The University of Pennsylvania is building a powerful computing grid that will make remote breast cancer diagnosis and screening a reality, putting the benefits of sophisticated, high-tech healthcare delivery at the disposal of entire populations. And Indiana and Purdue universities have linked their systems and developed an application that helps assess the impact of catastrophic events on populations.

The next step is for grid computing to break into the mainline business world. Butterfly.net uses a grid for its massive, multi-player online games. And grids are beginning to see use by financial institutions for applications such as risk-management analysis and portfolio optimization, by manufacturing companies for engineering simulation, and in the energy industry for seismic analysis.

Of course, Utopia has yet to arrive, but these early trials hold the promise of the future. New standards, beyond interoperability, must emerge among different computers and networks. And if we are to make computing grids an essential, yet invisible, part of our society, we must focus on simplicity of design and create a self-healing, "autonomic" infrastructure. This is an architectural style popularized by the "Blue Gene" supercomputer, which is being developed to give scientists and doctors greater insight into combating diseases. Blue Gene has eight million autonomous computing elements that cooperate among each other and self-manage the computations.

The promise of grid computing -- of Web-based services providing universal access to information and computing in a collaborative environment -- is as real as it is seductive. In fact, it's only fitting that the Internet, born out of a vision of collaboration, should now come full circle to fulfill that vision.

About the Author

Dr. Willy Chiu is the Vice President of the High- Volume Web sites organization in the IBM Software Group. He and his team of experts have created a world class center of competence on the scalability of high-volume Web sites; the center serves as a focal point for customers to address the challenges of excessive growth of Web site traffic and increasing complexity of e-business infrastructures.

Dr. Chiu's work helps enterprises benefit from networks that act like the electrical grid or software that's able to fix itself. Such innovations are in line with IBM's e-business on demand initiative.

This article was originally published on Monday Jul 14th 2003
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