Sun girds up grid software

Grid Engine Enterprise Edition version 5.3, to be announced Thursday, lets administrators set up policies that control how computing jobs run.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor

Sun Microsystems has upgraded its top-end "grid" software, a product that lets teams of computers collectively tackle calculation problems, making it more suitable for businesses that need strict control of their computing resources.

Grid Engine Enterprise Edition version 5.3, to be announced Thursday, lets administrators set up policies that control how computing jobs run. For example, limiting a job so it doesn't take up too much computing power, or setting a minimum amount so a job will get done on schedule.

It's an important feature for businesses that need to use more than just trust to make sure their computers' power is put to the best use and accounted for properly, said IDC analyst Jean Bozman. Companies are fanatic about metering use, ensuring that service levels are met and charging different departments appropriately when using other departments' resources.

In the words of Peter Jeffcock, client and technical products marketing manager at Sun, "It gets you past that barrier that people have: 'I don't want to share.'"

Grids began among academic customers but are gradually arriving in the mainstream business world, a shift backed by Sun, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and smaller companies such as Avaki and Platform Computing.

Sun also will announce that more than 5,000 grids using its Grid Engine software have been installed--about 2,000 of them in the past seven months. Those customers include Ford Motor, biotech company Cognigen USA and Durham University in England. Ford is using the software to design its vehicles' power train, Jeffcock said.

Sun gives the lower-end Grid Engine product away for free and has made its source code open source, meaning that anyone may modify and redistribute it.

The higher-end enterprise edition, which can link smaller grids together, isn't free. A version for 50 that uses 50 computer processors costs $20,000, and a 2,000-processor version costs $80,000. Support from Sun costs an addition 20 percent to 25 percent of that fee, Jeffcock said.

The fast spread past 5,000 grids shows significant progress for Sun as it vies to convince buyers that it's ahead of rivals, chiefly IBM, which has been funding research to merge grid computing with more business computing.

But when it comes to customers, Sun has the lead, said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt. IBM has partnerships with the Globus Project for developing grid standards as well as Avaki, Platform Computing, but the work "is not on the scale of Sun," she said.

IBM does have some software to bring to the grid world from its eLiza initiative, Quandt said. For example, single-sign on software makes it easier to control processes that run several difference computers.

Sun agrees with IBM that the world of grids and business-oriented "Web services" direction of Internet development will merge, but believes the process will take three to five years, Jeffcock said.

The grid-Web services convergence is beginning at life sciences companies, he said. These customers use grids to solve calculations problems such as designing drugs based on genetic information, but also have to access information stored in databases, a more traditional business problem, he said.

"Sun has Sun Open Network Environment ( Sun ONE) and grid. We are cementing those two technologies together," said Wolfgang Gentzsch, director of grid computing at Sun and an executive whose Grid Engine work dates back to before Sun acquired its original maker, Gridware, nearly two years ago.

Grids often run atop Linux machines, a popular operating system among researchers. Sun has signed a partnership under which German Linux seller SuSE will distribute the lower-end grid product.

However, Sun's Solaris systems remain most popular for its Grid Engine software, Jeffcock said. Sun provides the software for Solaris and Linux, but because the project is open source, other versions exist for different versions of Unix including HP-UX, SGI's Irix, IBM's AIX and HP's Tru64 Unix.

Of projects Sun knows about, about 50 percent of the grids run on networks of Solaris machines, 25 percent on Linux machines and 25 percent on both, Jeffcock said.

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