What the hell are Grids anyway?

Summary:Platform Computing chief executive Songnian Zhou has the answers to everything you wanted to know about Grid technology but were afraid to ask

The term Grid computing has joined the august pantheon of IT terms which are banded about without much precision. (See also: utility computing, on-demand, autonomic computing). No-one wants to be seen as out of touch with the latest terminology -- so jargon goes untested and unexamined.

One of the most often cited examples of Grid technology is SETI@home -- which uses a downloadable screen-saver to harvest the computing power of thousands of desktop machines. But the organisation itself prefers to describe what it does as "Public distributed computing".

This lack of clarity has undoubtedly contributed to the gulf that exists between the grandiose claims made for Grid computing and the reality of its actual deployment. IBM recently announced plans to create The World Community Grid for various medical and environmental research programmes but projects of this scale are the exception rather than the rule.

Some experts postulate the concept of Grid technology arriving in three waves: Firstly in academic research communities, followed by corporations which is beginning to happen now. The ultimate goal however is the third wave, which will see the technology coalesce to create a processing network analogous to the Web, and called simply "the Grid".

To address some of the thornier definition issues around Grid technology ZDNet UK sought out the chief executive of Platform Computing Songnian Zhou. His PhD thesis has been credited with helping to establish the field of distributed resource management -- one of the foundations for the Grid concept.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what Grid computing is. How would you define it and is this lack of clarity affecting its uptake?
It is important to have clear understanding of Grid but sometime we are too myopic or academic when it comes to defining it. I was actually working with Ian Foster in 2002 when he tried to come up with a definition, and came up with three criteria which I think are reasonable criteria.

If you ask me to give you a very clear and simplistic definition of grid I would say grid computing is distributed computing involving multiple sites to integrate and support applications and support collaboration.

Do you think the grid concept is being communicated succinctly enough to engage anyone apart from academics?
Not at all. It started on the wrong foot and has continued to be very confusing.

For example if you look at SETI@home that is an extreme example of what we call grid computing. Grid computing mostly focuses on server computers and not desktops. Also it is also mostly focused on existing applications, not brand new applications developed from scratch. People ask, "What is the killer app for grid?" and the answer is that the killer app is in front of you, behind you, all over the place -- but people just don't see that yet.

How far along are Grid standards? Are they holding back widespread uptake?
Standards are a major issue but not a show-stopper yet, because you first have to get a general understanding of what are the requisite technologies. Only then when you have some good ideas and contribution for expert parties can you even start to think what the standards will look like. I think it's still premature for the industry to know what the standards should be but the building blocks for standards are being worked on.

Topics: Networking


"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism." Hunter S. Thompson Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journ... Full Bio

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