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Oracle: UK plc 'needs grid to compete'

Grids can allow companies to use their computing resources more efficiently - vital in an age of offshore outsourcing and vicious global competition, argues Oracle

Grid computing will be the single most important factor keeping companies competitive against increasingly advanced competition from emerging economies, Oracle executives argued at the launch of the UK Oracle User Group's annual conference in Birmingham on Monday.

"The grid", a term adopted by some companies to refer to on-demand, or utility, computing, has been around in various forms for years, but it will soon take on new importance in a world where tech jobs are moving to areas such as India and Eastern Europe, said Oracle UK managing director Ian Smith.

"Now that the economy has achieved more stability, there is a continuing drumbeat of change, as foreign economies and labour markets have emerged ready to take on the world," Smith said in the event's opening keynote presentation. "UK companies must adapt to the fact that emerging countries have a value proposition that it is difficult to ignore."

One of the few ways in which companies in advanced economies can become more efficient is in re-engineering the way they use computing power, Smith argued. The utility computing model being pursued by Oracle, as well as by Sun, IBM, HP, Microsoft and other IT giants, relies on "virtualised" applications capable of drawing on any of a company's computers, or even buying capacity as needed from a third party, rather than relying on sets of specialised machines devoted to specific applications.

The model is being applied on an international scale by academic institutions and research labs, which want to be able to borrow computing capacity from other institutions for large number-crunching projects. A notable example is European research lab CERN, the birthplace of the Web, which is spurring grid development ahead of the launch of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator.

The old model makes as little sense as having to create complex projections of how much electricity you will use in your house, Smith said, saying a company's computing capacity should be as readily available as a home's electricity supply. "Imagine the savings (companies would) have if they didn't have to have that 'just-in-case' capacity, and could move instead to a 'just in time' model," he said.

Oracle is heavily pushing the grid message ahead of the year-end launch of Oracle 10g, which is a set of products that will include grid capabilities as well as more conventional improvements.

Oracle executives in the past have characterised grid computing as the most important technology since the Internet, but Smith said its main attraction would be its business value -- making data centres cheaper to run. "If every business runs its systems at maximum capacity and speed, British companies can once again lead the world economy," he said.

Some people are less enthusiastic about the new technology and claim it's yet another example of the computer industry succumbing to hype.

"Grid computing reminds me of hydrogen-powered cars -- a neat thought, but still years away from practical reality," Jon Oltsik, a founder and principal at Hype-Free Consulting, wrote in a 29 April column for CNET News.com.

Oltsik argued that even the most advanced systems from Oracle and others today, such as server "clusters", consist of only a couple of machines and are designed more for emergency computing than for collective computing. It will take "a boatload of cash and a roomful of technology PhDs" to deliver on the promises of grid computing, he wrote.

Outside the keynote, executives made it clear that while the trendy grid moniker may dominate the company's advertising message around 10g, Oracle is making sure that its next-generation products offer plenty of non-grid reasons to upgrade.

Alan Hartwell, vice president of marketing for Oracle UK and Ireland, said that while grid computing is a revolutionary concept on one level, it can also be viewed as an evolution of the ideas that Oracle introduced in 9i RAC, designed for clusters.

Ronan Miles, chairman of the UK Oracle User Group, said he had seen increasing interest among users in Oracle's version of the grid concept. "Oracle 10g is 9i RAC taken forwards," Hartwell said. "Using that view you can remove some of the hype. There are already some significant 9i RAC installations."

CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.