Sunday, April 11, 2021

Grid Computing: Fulfilling the Promise of the Internet

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.

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