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.
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.