Digipede Seeking to End Windows Neglect

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

July 4, 2005

GRIDtoday editor Derrick Harris recently spoke with Digipede Technologies CEO John Powers about what the company is expecting with its product launch next quarter (see “Digipede Ships Grid Software for Microsoft Windows” in this issue), how it plans to infiltrate users from the bottom up and, perhaps most importantly, why Digipede is focused on bringing Grid to mainstream Windows users — a market Powers calls “gigantic and lightly contested.”



GRIDtoday:
First, can you give a brief description of the Digipede Network? Is this solution all an end-user will need to harness the benefits of Grid computing?

JOHN POWERS: The Digipede Network is a distributed computing solution that delivers dramatically improved performance for real-world business applications. The software scales from a handful of computing nodes to thousands. Built entirely on the .Microsoft NET platform, the Digipede Network is radically easier to buy, install, learn and use than other Grid computing solutions.

And yes, our system allows users to harness the benefits of Grid computing in several ways, but in each case, our designers have strived to make this the easiest distributed computing product on the market.

If a user has an existing command-line process they need to distribute and run on their network, the Digipede Workbench provides a simple, graphical user interface to make that task easy. Instead of requiring any shell scripting to move applications and data around, the Workbench makes it simple for a non-developer to get into Grid, quickly and easily.

The Digipede Network can also work with applications that are already installed on compute resources—again, using the powerful, flexible Digipede Workbench.

Lastly, the Digipede Framework development tools make it straightforward for developers to create Grid-enabled applications themselves.

Gt: Digipede is unique in that it caters specifically to Windows users and .NET applications. What is the reason for this targeted market?

POWERS: I like markets that are gigantic and lightly contested. Windows is the dominant operating system on the planet. Period. We are continually amazed at the Grid community's neglect of Windows. When we talk to customers — in biotech, finance, energy and beyond — they are continually amazed at the Grid community's neglect of Windows.

As for .NET, let's be clear. The Digipede Network is built entirely on .NET, but we can distribute applications built with any technology that runs on Windows 2000 or later — including .NET, COM, Java or, for that matter, standalone executables developed in Fortran or C.

When we talk to customers, they tell us, very clearly:

  • Most applications run on a single operating system, not multiple operating systems. “Cross-platform” is a wonderful idea in the abstract, but the customers we talk to are not willing to incur the extra expense and complexity required to run a single application across multiple platforms simultaneously.
  • Most developers use Visual Studio .NET to build applications. It's the tool preferred by most developers of enterprise applications, both internal developers and ISVs.
  • Most computers run Microsoft Windows. For a large class of customers, the added complexity of maintaining a cross-platform distributed computing system is not worth the extra 10 or 20 percent of compute resources they could capture. It is far more important for these customers to support a heterogeneous combination of dedicated and shared resources running Windows (e.g., cluster nodes, desktops and departmental servers) than multiple operating systems.

But our focus on the Microsoft platform goes beyond Microsoft's present technology and market share. Microsoft is a terrific partner, and their partner ecosystem is just unbelievable. As Microsoft Gold Certified partners, we've received marketing support, access to their product managers, insights into their product roadmap and numerous other benefits. This month, we are participating in a three-day Microsoft Worldwide Partner conference, where we will meet with dozens of potential partners — ISVs, OEMs, system builders, resellers, integrators — and we're committed to playing an important role in the Microsoft distributed computing ecosystem.

Gt: Will the company be releasing solutions for any other platforms or operating systems in the future?

POWERS: Digipede is committed to inter-operating with solutions released on other operating systems. Digipede has no plans to release its own products on other operating systems.

Gt: What kind of response have you received since announcing the public beta program in April? How have the early beta customers that have been on board since before February responded?

POWERS: Our beta customers have been very pleased — and we're very pleased with the help they've provided to us. The variety of applications (including some we never expected) has been most gratifying and helpful to us in ensuring the Digipede Network can support applications not usually classified as “High Performance Computing (HPC).” While the HPC market is important to us, there is a much larger market of mainstream enterprise software that can benefit greatly from improved application performance.

Gt: One of the real draws of the Digipede Network, especially the Team Edition, seems to be the low price tag. Can you explain the rationale behind the pricing scheme?

POWERS: As we have talked to customers in this market — and we talk with lots and lots of customers and potential customers — the feedback we've received about Grid computing has been remarkably consistent. Price, per se, is not a barrier to adoption. The number one barrier to adoption is complexity.

With that complexity has come a very high threshold for the adoption of Grid solutions. When you need consultants, long feasibility studies and longer implementation projects just to get in the game, that's a high threshold for most customers to cross. As a result, Grid customers tend to be very large organizations, and they tend to spend a lot of time and money dealing with complex installation, configuration, integration, training and support issues.

Our goal is to eliminate complexity wherever possible, and to provide a much lower entry point. As you weed out complexity, you open this market to a much wider range of customers. That's how the benefits of Grid computing will really start to show up — when they reach small to medium businesses and individual departments within larger organizations. That's where the energy is, that's where the innovation is and that's where the greatest needs are.

Our pricing is part of that strategy. When you can buy great Grid computing software for under a thousand dollars, when you can get it installed and running without spending a dollar on consultants, then it's much easier to get started. You don't have to cross this high threshold of cost and complexity — you can get started today and see the benefits for yourself, in your own organization, and then add more power as you need it.

When you talk with folks in small and medium businesses, and in small and medium labs and departments within much larger organizations, you find out: they buy products that solve problems. They are not going to do an organizational transformation consulting project to improve application performance. They're going to buy something they can use right away, without a lot of fuss.

We don't see our product as dramatically lower-priced than other solutions out there; our price per node is fairly similar to other offerings. The real difference is the lower entry point; the simplicity of implementation makes it possible for us to support a five-node sale. Our competition can't say that.

Gt: Can SMBs really expect to see results from a Grid of, say, five nodes?

POWERS: Absolutely. If your most important analytic application runs for an hour on a single machine, and we can cut that time to 12-15 minutes with a five-node implementation of the Digipede Network Team Edition, that's a big deal. That means, for example, an analyst can get four or five times as many model runs done in a day as before, which changes the way he or she works every day. And, of course, the Team Edition isn't capped at five nodes; once that business sees how easy it is to achieve the benefits of distributed computing, they can add up to 20 Digipede Agents to further increase the throughput of their applications.

And that's exactly what we see happening. I'll give you another example. One of our beta customers is a company called InBoxer. They make an advanced spam filtering product, and they do a lot of statistical modeling — their classification of e-mail as spam or not spam gets better the more they calibrate it by exposing it to huge amounts of e-mail. Their statistical models were running all night on a single processor. They got the Digipede Network, installed the Digipede Agents on four or five machines, and saw an immediate impact; their jobs were cut down to less than two hours. Their CTO was so impressed that he went shopping — he bought several additional servers, deployed additional Digipede Agents on those servers, and they're down to about 40 minutes on those same jobs. That's huge for them — it completely changes the way they interact with their data and their models, and the pace at which they can improve and grow their business. And we made exactly zero trips out to help them with this — they got everything up and running themselves.

Gt: What about the Professional Edition? How does Digipede stack up against other vendors (e.g., IBM, Sun Microsystems, Platform Computing) targeting large IT departments?

POWERS: The Digipede Network Team Edition and Professional Edition are developed with the same code base. We want Professional Edition to preserve the ease of deployment and use that we've built into the Team Edition. We also wanted to provide a very clean upgrade path from Team Edition to Professional Edition. This is critical, because we see some very, very big companies — Fortune 50 companies — looking at Team Edition. Is that because they want to limit their use of Grid computing to five or 20 machines? Of course not. It's because at the department level, where the application performance bottlenecks are most apparent, they want to experiment with a small system before they commit to a wider deployment.

That brings up a fundamental difference, not in technology, but in customer focus. You asked about “targeting large IT departments,” and I think that's where we're different from most Grid vendors. We're not targeting large IT departments — at least, not directly. Good IT departments — large and small — listen to the needs of their users. The Digipede Network Professional Edition is targeted at the needs of users and IT departments alike. Yes, IT departments will like it because of its ease of implementation and administration but, primarily, we're building in features that help users be more productive.

Professional Edition includes some additional features required for the support of larger departments and businesses. Professional Edition allows:

  • An unlimited number of Digipede Agents.
  • An unlimited number of users.
  • The definition of multiple resource pools, (e.g., the accounting department pool, the third-floor dedicated cluster, the “nights and weekends” pool, the “all resources” pool) with different user privileges on each pool.
  • Setting different priorities for different jobs.

As for how it compares to offerings from IBM, Sun, Platform and others, well, really the whole approach is a little different. There's no question that there are advantages and disadvantages to each vendor's approach, and types of applications that are better suited for each vendor. We've placed a premium on ease of deployment, ease of use and ease of application integration. Others have placed a premium on cross-platform execution, “command and control” scheduling for the tightest possible control of dedicated clusters and so on. We think that there's a big, underserved market focused on the same priorities as we are with the Digipede Network Professional Edition. We'll see when we release it next quarter.

Gt: It is often said that the complexity of Grid-enabling existing applications is one obstacle companies face when deploying a Grid infrastructure. How does the Digipede Framework (API) ease this burden?

POWERS: This is a really important area for us. The whole Digipede team comes from the enterprise software industry, and we're keenly aware of the needs of developers. We realize that application developers know their applications well and want to focus on the functionality their applications deliver — not on the nuts and bolts of distributed computing.

The Digipede Framework provides developers with the easiest path available for Grid-enabling their applications. It fits right into Visual Studio .NET, which means all the documentation is accessible the same way the MSDN documentation is, and that IntelliSense makes the Digipede Framework classes as easy-to-work-with as all of the .NET Framework. In short, we allow developers to work the way they're used to working, so developing a distributed application is no more difficult than developing any other kind of application.

The Digipede Framework API is remarkably simple for the complex functionality it enables. Developers pick the classes in their applications that they would like distributed, and derive those classes from our Worker object. At run time, each object of that class that they instantiate is automatically migrated by the Digipede Network to a machine ready to execute the work; a method is called by the agent, and the objects are re-serialized and streamed back into the calling application. Nearly all of the developer's code is unchanged; the object-oriented nature of .NET programming is preserved completely. The developer no longer needs to worry about the difficult parts of distributed computing: how and where to move the appropriate EXEs and DLLs, determining which computers are on the network and available for work, and guaranteeing execution by monitoring processes. All of those chores are taken care of by the Digipede Network so the developer can concentrate on his or her own application.

Gt: The ease-of-use and ease-of-implementation of the Digipede Network seem too good to be true. How can a Grid network be set up so smoothly out of the box?

POWERS: Too good to be true? Ah, that's a sad commentary on the state of Grid software today. I think ease of implementation and use are minimum standards for successful software! Think of all the very hard things that software has made easy. I don't view the process of editing digital photos as “easy” — it's a tremendously complex set of activities. But Adobe has made it easy by putting a lot of the complexity behind the scenes where I don't need to worry about it. I don't need to know what algorithms they use for redeye correction to make my kid's eyes look human — I'm sure some smart people at Adobe worked very hard on that — but now it just works.

Or, just look at a product like Microsoft SQL Server. There was a time when installing and administering a high end database took a full-time, highly trained employee. SQL Server is a product that you or I could install in minutes, and then just start using it. It scales up tremendously well (to over 20TB), but also scales down very well — the MSDE version of SQL server requires no administration at all, and is ideal for small installations. We are providing the same kind of product—we want to scale down as well as we scale up, and we will provide ease of use at all scales.

So, to me, your question is really one of priorities. We build ease of use and ease of implementation into our products through hard work because that's what our customers want.

Gt: You've stated that your target users are in the financial services and life sciences markets. How did you come to this conclusion? What other markets is Digipede targeting?

POWERS: Well, our initial focus is in the areas you cited because that's where we've seen a lot of pain and money and growth. We're certainly getting a lot of interest from these areas. When we go to a biotech company and see Ph.D. bioinformaticians struggling with Perl scripts for weeks and months, trying to cobble together their own home-brew distributed computing system, that's an opportunity. When we see Ph.D. economists and financial engineering wizards being told the have to ditch their preferred development environment and hire Linux systems administrators just to speed up their applications, that's an opportunity.

But certainly, we're seeing interest from other fields. My background is in energy, and that's certainly a lively area. Video processing of all types is a growth area not being well addressed. I‘m not just talking about rendering animation and special effects, but media repurposing of every sort. The storage guys have figured out how important this area is, but this isn't just a storage problem. And, of course, there's the “other” category, which looks to be a pretty interesting category, as my earlier InBoxer example shows.

Gt: Have you seen The 451 Group's report on Grids in the pharmaceutical sector, which generally falls under “life sciences?” How will Digipede go about gaining ground in this apprehensive field?

POWERS: I think that's a valuable report, and the observations and conclusions in it are quite consistent with my own view of that market. “Pharma” has been the victim of IT hype for decades, and many people in the sector feel that Grid is just the latest technology being thrust at them with unrealistic promises. The top-down sale, which says “transform your company and then you can achieve the astonishing benefits of Grid,” is just not going to work in pharma. The way Grid will succeed in pharma — and in other industries — is the hard way, from the bottom up. We go directly to the departments with the problems, where application performance is a real bottleneck. Even those folks are skeptical, but are willing to experiment with the right solution.

Gt: We haven't heard much from Microsoft in regard to Grid computing. How will Digipede's partnership with Microsoft affect, or be affected by, a decision by Microsoft to start pushing Grid solutions?

POWERS: Our whole team has been working with Microsoft for about 17 or 18 years across three previous companies. We're doing everything we can to align ourselves with Microsoft's strategy in high-performance computing, in distributed computing more broadly, in specific verticals and more. While Microsoft doesn't use the word “Grid” very often, they're getting more active in HPC. They're pushing very hard on 64-bit Windows. They're beefing up their support for high-speed interconnects. I've been up to Redmond (Wash.) several times to meet with the team building Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition, which will be out next year. All that is very good for us; while nothing we've done requires CCE or 64-bit Windows, we'll benefit from it. The more credible Microsoft is within the HPC community, the more the Digipede Network will take hold there.

But as I said earlier, we all come out of the enterprise computing field, not the HPC field. Our Microsoft strategy extends to Visual Studio .NET, the most widely-used enterprise development tools around. Enterprise software developers can scale out their applications with the Digipede Network with just a few lines of code. That market is, conservatively, 10 times the size of the HPC market, and we're completely aligned with Microsoft's strategy here. We're building capabilities on top of .NET, just as they hope their partners will do.

Gt: Is there anything else you would like to add?

POWERS: I want to thank GRIDtoday for the great job you're doing in covering this market, and to encourage you to look closely at what's going on in the SMB market.

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