Sun's flawed utility vision

Sun's flawed utility vision

Summary: Now that Sun has booted up its grid offering, it seems like a good moment to explode one or two myths about utility computing.


Now that Sun has booted up its grid offering, it seems like a good moment to explode one or two myths about utility computing. Sun has been trying to get this right for at least a decade now, and everyone (except Sun itself, it seems) can learn from its mistakes.

Its biggest mistake is to believe you can apply an electricity-style utility model to conventional software applications, and it's still making that mistake even now, as Martin LaMonica reveals in this paragraph from his story:

"Though the hardware-based service is still in limited release, Sun is already devising software-related services to go with it. In particular, Sun is building up hosted services for desktop and back-office business applications. It's also seeking partnerships with professional service companies and enterprise resource planning, or ERP, vendors to further develop the offerings."

Let me try and nail this fallacy as succinctly as I can before I lose patience with it. The electricity utility model is a shared infrastructure model. It shares the infrastructure for generating and distributing electricity because currently that's the most cost-effective way of delivering electric power. Grid computing is called utility computing because it corresponds to this model, by sharing raw computing infrastructure.

The applications of electricity are things like heating and lighting. The electricity utility model does not share application infrastructure. The light from your desk lamp isn't coming down a cable from the power station. The applications of electricity are instantiated locally at the point of need. There is no economic model in which it is viable to operate them from a remote location.

Computing is different from electricity in that it is possible to design applications in such a way that much of the underlying application infrastructure can be shared. But that only works if the applications are architected from the ground up for that purpose. Anything based on conventional software packages is just SoSaaS, and as economically clueless as shining a light down a cable.

Unfortunately, the telecoms companies in Sun's customer base who aspire to own and operate utility computing plants are so eager to get into what they see as the lucrative applications business that they overlook these architectural differences. Ten years ago, one of Sun's first customers for its abortive JavaStation network computer was British Telecom. Over the next few years, BT's boffins at its Martlesham Heath research laboratories worked tirelessly to implement a hosted applications model that would allow them to deliver SAP cost-effectively to small businesses using JavaStations. Eventually, they worked out that the only way to achieve this was by implementing a Citrix MetaFrame server at the customer site and serve Windows Terminal emulation sessions to the JavaStations over the LAN. It was hopelessly uneconomic.

BT finally launched the commercial results of these experiments (sans JavaStations by then) in March 1999 as BT BusinessManager, which promised to deliver SAP to SMEs for as little as $200 per user per month. To my knowledge, the sole production customer BT managed to bring online was a 17-employee cargo management business, whose financial controller was the sole user of the system. To this day, I'm sure that remains the only ever recorded single-seat implementation of SAP.

Encouraged by the likes of Sun, Citrix, Microsoft and SAP (yes, all these vendors and more have been guilty of this at one time or another), telecoms companies across the globe have collectively sunk millions of dollars into similarly clueless initiatives, entirely without success. They are wasting their time even thinking about becoming application providers, and I am astonished that, after witnessing so many disastrous failures, Sun still persists in talking as if they should.

Topic: Apps

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • Hear, hear!

    Jolly good show! Your keen insight is evident as you cover this topic like a blanket. The old adage that hardware advances happen MUCH faster than software advances fits this model to a "T". Sun is a hardware vendor, and they are able to do all sorts of neat and interesting things to provide computer power. Their problem (and it exists everywhere), is how to leverage their hardware for economic gain. Software is obviously the main way to do this, but software development is STILL more of an art then a science - and 80% of ALL large software implementations FAIL - so the odds of making the software work for this utility model, are not very good. Maybe Sun should take its money and go to Vegas OR buy up tickets when the lotto goes over $300 million. THOSE odds should be better than the odds of making this hairbrain utility model work.
    Roger Ramjet
  • bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth

    the only way to get distributed computing to work is through a big pipe, and the internet is so screwed up that anyone that would choose it to use as the primary conduit for their business would be insane.
    Dedicated fiber to the "power plant" would probably make success more likely, but more expensive as well. Programmers cannot overcome the basic infrastructure problems here in the US, because there isn't one that can deal with millions of computers running apps real time over the net.

    By the way, steam, as a byproduct of power generation is used to heat buildings here in NYC, and requires no conversion to be useful.
  • Way to late...

    This might have been a good idea 15 or 20 years ago but with the advancement of cheaper and more powerful hardware it makes little sense. By this time next year we will see multi-CPU with multi-core CPUs on mother boards for PCs.

    Contray to what many have predicted many times, the PC is not going to be replaced. It's just that simple...

    But this isn't about PCs you say? True to some extent, but that was what all the main frame guys said too...
    • Completely agree (nt)

      nt = no text
  • Does sun understand software?

    Idea behind sun's java has tremendous potential. But I have to say, they never been able to make it work properly. I no longer buy ideas-only without substance.
  • RMS must be smiling

    If Richard Stallman's vision of a future where all software is freely copyable and distributable ever comes to pass, it will attributable to schemes like "utility computing" that try to take away the very limited ownership that people still have over the software they run on their own equipment. The free sofrware paradigm does have its problems, but it excels at putting end users in charge of their own equipment. If proprietory software is to survive, developers must concentrate on giving customers value for their money; the current emphasis on ever greater vendor control over people's computers not only fails to further that goal, it encourages paying customers to look elsewhere.

    I really wish the industry that puts food on my table was less suicidal.
    John L. Ries
  • Disagree

    I disagree, there are some applications I would buy as a home user. For example, I sell used books on with a professional seller account. If Amazon would offer a turn key service to handle all my accounting needs I would gladly subscribe. I could list my book and how much I paid for it. etcetra and Amazon could calculate and pay all my taxes and figure out how much money I made. I also would like to keep my Quicken book keeping on line so that I could access it from anywhere.

  • Utility computing as a whole is flawed

    The reality of Grid computing
  • Utiity Computing works well for PAYKWIK

    PAYKWIK Internet On Demand computes 3,000 employees per min. for unlimted companies with unlimited employees with unlimited pay rates some 440 ways with 385 reports to eliminate the need for a report writer.
    Any one with doubt is invited to request log on instructions to the PAYKwik Interent site and see for themselves that utility computing is here and now and run a 3,000 employee data ready company.

    Don Neumann

    PAYKWIK is a Registered Trademark
    601 529 6093