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Grid Computing Good for Business

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By Randy Dotinga, Wired

Grid computing is making its debut in the corporate world, and this debutante is ready for romance.

Charles Schwab is one of the latest suitors to come calling, following in the footsteps of IBM, Hewlett-Packard and a handful of other companies both big and small. All are attracted by the allure of the grid, not the least of which is its willingness to bestow its charms for free.

But challenges will come with the increased attention. "We've always been a mostly happy community of scientific users," said Ian Foster, a professor of computer science at the University of Chicago and co-leader of the grid-computing-based Globus Project. "Now we're starting to see major industrial players engage in grid computing. That's going to change the nature of what we do."

For the time being, however, all attention is on the release this week of a pre-beta version of the next enhancement of the standard grid software. A final product is expected by summer.

The software, known as the Global Toolkit 3.0, is open source. "It's available under a license that places no restrictions on its use," Foster said at the inaugural GlobusWorld conference here this week. "You can sell it, you can print it off and burn it. The only thing you can't do is sue us."

The academic types who created the software say it will help scientists and companies lash their computers together more effectively and efficiently than ever before. "The Web is about sharing information. The grid is about sharing resources," said Tom Hawk, general manager of grid computing for IBM. "It's kind of like the Borg -- all the resources become part of the collective, but in a good way."

Speaking of aliens, the SETI@home project -- which taps the power of thousands of home computers in the search for extraterrestrial life -- is a primitive version of grid computing. Replace those PCs with the world's largest supercomputers, add more complex forms of interaction, and you can get an idea of what grid computing can do. It's attractive to those in a range of fields, from analysis of data to the coordinated storage of terabytes and pentabytes of information. (Trust us: That's a whole lot of bytes.)

Scientists were the first to realize the potential of the grid and have been using it for everything from earthquake simulations to fantastically complex physics experiments.

But the for-profit folks are busy coming on board, and many are showing off their plans at the GlobusWorld conference. Some use a more limited form of grid computing known as a "cluster" to harness the energy of companywide computers that would otherwise be idle. Others bring grid computing to what its creators call its full potential -- the linking of machines across companies in a kind of networking of the gods.

Some corporate types are going ga-ga., which supports multiplayer video games, is so enamored by grid software that it touts the technology on its homepage. Oracle, which incorporated grid software into its database programs, is excited, too. It says its customers can save half the cost of mainframe computing using the grid.

The financial services provider Charles Schwab, meanwhile, is exploring the use of grid technology for data analysis. The company says it has the largest supercomputer of any commercial company in the world, and the 49th biggest overall.

Globus co-leader Carl Kesselman, director of the Center for Grid Technologies at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, is thrilled about the grid's new profile, but he and others are also calling for calm. According to experts, grid computing will ideally work invisibly in the background, and there may never be some sort of fabulous "killer app."

"It's not going to be good if everybody goes, 'Grid, grid, grid!' without an understanding of what's going on," Kesselman said.

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