Thursday, February 24, 2005

Outsource Your Number Crunching

Computing and data centers are pricey propositions. Small companies can get away with a few PCs and a broadband connection to the Internet. Medium and larger sized corporations are faced with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars in capital investment. To that you have to add the recurring costs of electricity, environmental controls, regular system upgrades and the expert personnel to maintain all that magic behind the curtain.

These costs are just the price you pay to be in the modern business game, right? Companies have tried various options to get the same result cheaper, including outsourcing the help desk overseas, using application service providers, leasing equipment and hiring temporary and contract personnel. Now here's a new wrinkle: Outsource your computers.

After years of downsizing human resources, hardware is now the one with a bullseye on its back... er... back of the rack. The selling point is that data centers tend to accumulate rooms full of equipment that starts going stale nearly as fast as a fresh gallon of milk. Just when you think you've got it paid for, it's time to add more machines or upgrade the processors, memory, storage and so on. All the while, these centers are turning electricity into heat and more electricity into air conditioning to get rid of the heat from the computers. This goes on even during times of the day when the loading on the computers is low. Is there any way to offload these costs?

The people promoting grid computing or utility computing think it can be more efficient to treat computing power just like electric power and have it delivered by a utility. You don't find it cost effective to go off the utility grid, so why not consider getting on the computing grid?

Grid computing itself isn't really based on having a single monster computer sitting next to a power plant. It's based on the idea that a super computer can be built cheaper from thousands of small microprocessor based computers, even standard PCs. With the right software orchestrating this army of machines it's possible to get terabytes per second throughput, perhaps even petabytes some day.

Now, who has lots and lots of the latest model computers at their disposal? Why, the computer manufacturers of course. That's why you see Sun promoting the "Sun Grid" for utility computing. HP and IBM have their own offerings. Sun is currently running a promotion offering their 10,000 CPU grid for a buck per cpu-hr. I guess that's $10K an hour if you need all of them. Still, what do you pay for a cpu-hour all told?

Seems unlikely that anyone is going to outsource their office PCs or even a small mainframe. But, if you need massive processing power for a particular project or just in short bursts, utility computing could make a lot more sense than owning. Typical examples include engineering design automation, scientific modeling, financial simulations, and high resolution graphics rendering to make movies.

Sun is actually taking this utility idea further by also offering a storage utility for $1 per gigabyte per month. Now maybe you can give the heave-ho to some of those disk arrays and tape libraries. What WILL you do with all that extra floor space?

If utility computing catches on, we may see a lot more pay-per-use or metered services become available. With high speed bandwidth coming down in price, accessing pooled resources located far away gets easier and less expensive. Perhaps market economics will flip and we'll generate our own electricity with solar panels but buy our computing and data storage from a utility.

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