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May 23, 2011

A Plateau of Productivity for Grids

Nicole Hemsoth

Last October a study from Platform Computing, SAS, and the TABB Group pointed to a coming explosion in the use of cloud, cluster and grid technologies in financial services due to the rapidly rising river of data and need for scalable compute to manage it.

This study revealed that a majority of financial institutions hoped to combine grid and cloud technologies with 53 percent considering investments in grid computing in the next two years and 57 percent looking into the possibilities of cloud computing.

While this shows that grid computing models are alive and well in this particular industry (which has been making use of grids for many years now) it is only recently that grids are “growing up” say the authors of a detailed report from consulting firm Excelian.

The authors behind the Excelian report suggest that for financial services users, “at its best, grid is being used as an enterprise level large-scale distributed compute solution and at its least effective, it is seen purely as a point solution for parallel compute.” They suggest that we are at a point where the ecosystem has matured enough for us to determine these larger trends and look ahead to ways to build on grid successes.

Excelian’s report makes the claim that following several years of growth, this year marks the “plateau of productivity for grid” and urge financial services companies to step back and take stock of their progress on grid computing solutions.

The bedrock under this plateau of grid computing productivity has to do with the movement from this computing model from less of a specialist technology to more of a commodity, according to Dr. Adam Vile, one of the lead authors of the Excelian report.  He further explains this concept, which is embodied by the “Grid Grows Up” title of the study, noting that this movement from specialization to commoditization simply means that when it comes to grids, the mystery is gone. He told us that these days, “grid specialists are not so much in demand and almost every bank has one. There is an understanding about how to program for, deploy and manage grid that has grown up over the last 10 years. Furthermore, vendor products are mature and are managing grids of tens of thousands of nodes.”

Vile went on to explain that “grid management is moving to an operational phase, and we are seeing infrastructure or middleware groups running grids now rather than more specialist application developer groups.  Grid evolution is paralleled in examples of message bus or the database, and is becoming a well understood service rather than a specialist black box.”

Although financial services might need to reevaluate their distributed computing solutions at the moment, the report does indicate that grids are uniquely suited to the banking market in particular due to scalability and management ease as well as the ability to use a variety of operating systems, however these are some of the same arguments made in favor of enterprise use of cloud computing resources.

According to Vile, grid computing has a unique meaning for financial services companies due to their need to provision large-scale distributed environments to manage calculations within strict service levels. He explained that for grids in this industry, the vision of it as a ubiquitous, shared compute resource isn’t on the top of the financial services agenda—rather the key lies in the ability to share internally.

Given the focus on scalability, management and operating system diversity when it comes to grid value in financial services, one could propose that these are similar points of interest for enterprise users in any industry considering cloud computing. It can be difficult to draw the line between what is more valuable for financial services companies on the grid-cloud line, which Vile notes is a frequent matter of debate. In his view, the lines between grids and clouds are blending in the research community whereas in the industry they are still highly distinct, especially since the main goal for grids in the financial services industry is to manage the completion of required work in a certain allotted period of time.

He further explained this division, noting that “typically grid uses a set of allocated machines and cores, certainly in production environments, to guarantee service levels. Cloud is seen as a mechanism for providing resources on a more flexible basis–internal or external (notwithstanding the challenges of security, latency and service levels) and is more pervasive than the provision of compute.” He says due to these differences, he has seen banks interested in using cloud to drive up utilization in their server estates through the matching of workloads use patterns outside of compute oriented workloads, and that they do see interest in using cloud externally as a “burst” capacity.

He says that beyond this, financial services companies can look at different ways to manage their current computing resources and maximize what they do have.

“Point solutions are inefficient uses of expensive commodity technology and costs are, as ever, under scrutiny in the financial services industry. A number of our customers and clients have grown their grids from a technology that creates new business into a service necessary to do business; some are just starting out on the grid journey. We felt than now was a good time to look at the industry and the use of grid and help people understand that as the technology matures the challenges change, and to position themselves in terms of a routemap for grid assimilation.”

Vile points out that the grids are, of course, not a new concept but its organic growth has pushed many organizations to consider more thoroughly how they can be used and managed.

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