IBM Looking to Localize Grid

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

May 23, 2005

IBM announced this week its Economic Development Grid initiative, which aims to help public sector institutions (e.g., school districts, local businesses, local governments, universities) in different geographic regions leverage their computing power and resources to best benefit the communities they serve.

The first region to be publicly announced as a partner is Greater Cleveland, an area already being served by OneCleveland, a non-profit organization dedicated to driving collaboration in the area through its region-wide Gigabit network. IBM and OneCleveland have been working together for some time on the network, which also aided in Cleveland being ahead of the other cities with which IBM is working.

“They're a non-profit Ohio organization that's focused on this type of value proposition and it made for a very easy, quick discussion and a very easy move forward on the project,” said Ken King, IBM's vice president of Grid computing. “If you don't have an organization like that set up in your community, it's a little bit more of an effort.”

Scot Rourke, president of OneCleveland, said the organization is trying to make the best use of its network, and is looking to use technology as a tool set to solve various problems and challenges.

To establish what areas could benefit the most, and in turn bring the most benefits to the community, IBM conducted a survey of CXOs in the region and came up with four main categories where a Grid initiative could really make a difference. The four areas, and their respective projects, are:

  • Healthcare Collaborative Grid — This collaborative Grid would allow hospitals to share information, ultimately allowing for improved health care for patients through collaboration among medical professionals.
  • Public Information Grid — Designed to offer broad community impact by delivering local government information to citizens. It will improve the visibility of government information and services to citizens, while improving customer service at a reduced cost.
  • K-12 Outreach Grid — An example of a data-sharing collaborative Grid, this would allow the K-12 educational system to tap into the resources from numerous school systems, as well as universities and content providers to help teachers deliver higher quality and compelling educational programs with the goal of increasing graduation rates. As another example, a High School Outreach Grid would allow universities to attract students, increasing enrollment in local and public universities.
  • Higher Education Collaborative Grid — By further enabling distance learning, these collaborative Grids can provide a more effective way for students to learn. They will make education more accessible to students who may not have been able to participate, ultimately providing an increase in attendance in local Ohio universities.

“With IBM's help,” said Rourke, “we were able to educate them on how we might be able to use, in this instance, Grid to address some of those social challenges and opportunities.”

Both King and Rourke spoke about the possibilities of the health care Grid project that has been outlined. King said the federation of medical records across the various hospitals could really be helpful for uninsured individuals, who often have to bounce from ER to ER, and their records don't necessarily travel with them.

However, socio-economic benefits are not the only benefits the health care system in the Cleveland area could see should the Grid project be successful. Rourke said using Grid for the equivalent of interoperable electronic medical records could reduce health care costs in the region by 20 percent. A number, he added, that could be increased due to the Cleveland area's relatively small number of providers versus metropolitan areas of a similar size.

Rourke also laid out the two phases that he sees for the health care project. Phase one, he said, is having interoperable medical records. Phase two is a little more complex. Rourke said that the Cleveland area will have a competitive advantage if it can establish one of the first regional health care networks, which should lead to pharmaceutical companies targeting the areas for drug trial tracking, populace studies and the like.

Even with the excitement surrounding health care, though, no decisions have been made on which project will get underway first.

“We are probably going to start with identifying one of those opportunities that has the most interest, the most resources to bring to bear, the least amount of project-related risk, the most social impacts,” said Rourke. “Before the end of the year, it's our goal to have a live, working example of a collaboration in those areas of some leading institutions in this marketplace.”

Assuming all the foreseen projects come to fruition and thrive, both King and Rourke said the idea of linking the various projects to form a “city Grid” or a “wired city” is definitely being considered. As King said, “That's down the road a bit. Obviously, they've got to start small, they've got to get some of these initial projects implemented and successful and demonstrating value and return on the money they're spending to do this, and then you can build out from there.”

Rourke added that the city won't necessarily have to be “wired,” as OneCleveland is talking a lot about the concept of a “digital community.”

But what about the money? Said King: “For IBM, this is about being a business. This is not about philanthropy.”

That said, it doesn't mean IBM won't be doling out a little cash to get things started. King said every scenario will be different, some of which might include research grants or university grants that IBM does all the time. He also added that the possibility exists that IBM could do the consulting for a project, only to have the community choose competitive technology or even have a competitor do the implementation.

“It's a broad range,” he said. “There are areas where we will contribute, but we are also looking at this as a business opportunity.”

Although he can't give specific cities just yet, King said IBM is also working with a couple of other areas on some interesting projects. One city is interested in becoming a hub for software development and plans to use Grid technology to make available the compute power of its local government, universities and businesses to give software companies a break as they deal with other start-up pains like finding venture capital.

Another area is looking to become a hub for medical research and, like Cleveland, hopes to draw in companies with its integrated data Grid capabilities. That area is also looking at using excess compute capacity to run very compressed medical research algorithms.

As for Cleveland, however, where all eyes will be focused to see how viable this initiative can be, OneCleveland's Rourke said things are looking good. He said they have identified “passionate leaders” in their respective areas, have people committed to assigning resources to projects and are finalizing executive support.

In the end, though, for any city or metropolitan area that decides to work with IBM via its Economic Development Grid initiative, there is a lot of work that must be done. While OneCleveland's high-speed network and stated goal of driving collaboration made that project a little easier, other cases will likely be more complex. Much work must be done, said King, to establish relationships with local governments, economic development boards, universities and other institutions in order to create a constituency that will drive the project forward.

“This is not a simple exercise,” King said, “but the value proposition is large, as well.”

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