The Grid Challenge

Concept holds potential, but much work remains.

When Jamie Shiers says grid computing is the next big thing, it is worth paying attention. Shiers is the Database Group lead manager at CERN.

CERN is the birthplace of the World Wide Web, and the technology folks from the organization carry weight when they speak.

"What would happen if something came along that would change everything? Like the Internet. We believe that thing has come along, and that thing is the grid. We are actively involved in making it happen, and it is the underlying cornerstone of our computing model," Shiers said at a customer panel discussion during OracleWorld last week in San Francisco.

While Shiers and his fellow panelists all agreed on the importance of grid computing, they—like most of the industry—couldnt quite agree on what it is, what it will cost and when it will appear. Oracles grid initiative joins utility computing, on-demand computing and the adaptive enterprise as vendor terms for a sort of one-size-fits-all strategy for enterprise computing—the idea being that overspending and overprovisioning result in inefficient computer architectures. The champions of this new style—this week it was Larry Ellisons turn—contend that grid computing is only the biggest thing in about 40 years.

Think of it, as one companion whispered to me during Ellisons keynote, as Larry building an operating system. Or more precisely, an über-operating system, with this system overseeing not just the input and output of a couple of boxes but also the storage, database and applications upon which a company is built. And while the system can learn to live within a heterogeneous computing world, Larrys operating system works best in Larrys world with the underpinnings of an Oracle 10g database running the whole shop.

While details like pricing and production remain to be divulged, the 10g platform seems to get Ellison as excited as he gets about his other two passions: sailing multimillion-dollar yachts and strategizing about taking over the rest of the software industry.

Building a grid makes a lot of sense, but taking that grid experience from its current academic surroundings to the enterprise is a big task. While server provisioning and paying for the computer power you use, rather than for unused power, is a major point of discussion among vendors, it is honestly not the top topic I hear from the IT community. That community has just struggled through a summer of viruses, spam and restricted budgets. And now with the two-year anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, upon us, thoughts are much more on security and redundancy than on provisioning the system to exactly fit the corporate computing need. While grids do address redundancy well, their ability to address security is far less proven. The widespread adoption of grids will be resolved much more in testing labs and settings where peers can exchange their grid experiences than in corporate executive suites where all computing decisions are narrowed to spreadsheet operations.

"Security is one of the big challenges," agreed Dwight Davis, practice director at Summit Strategies. The challenge of maintaining user control and limiting application access as a grid shuttles and adjusts the system based on demand is daunting. Equally daunting will be the job for pricing based on the grid. While Ellison, in a later session, declined to reveal pricing, he did hint that Oracle is considering a blanket enterprise license rather than a per-user or per-seat price.

While the computing community waits for pricing, delivery and the results of testing, maybe the execs urging users to jump on grids should display their commitment to avoiding overprovisioning by changing the symbols of their success. That would probably be the most difficult for Ellison. Instead of a fantastically expensive sports car that is seriously horsepower-overprovisioned for Silicon Valley, he could opt for a hybrid car. Instead of a yacht to race in the Americas Cup, he could opt for an ice boat used on the frozen lakes of Minnesota in the winter. Ellison guessed that within five years, half of Oracles customers will be moved to the grid. If hes going to make that happen, he wont have all that much time for racing yachts and driving sports cars anyway.

Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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