Grid Computing: Square Pegs, Round Holes and a Good Cigar

By By Mike Bernhardt, Contributing Author

July 11, 2005

I recently polled several colleagues and Grid evangelists from both the vendor and end-user communities to gather a fresh perspective on the continued state of confusion surrounding the rate of Grid adoption and just how to size this market. The responses I got were fairly consistent and — no surprise to my readers, I'm sure — notably laced with frustration:

  • “Trying to discuss how Grid fits into the enterprise can be as frustrating as squeezing the proverbial square peg into a round hole.”
  • “The problem in trying to understand the potential market for Grid deployments is that we're trying to compare apples to oranges … and bananas … and grapefruits … and lemons.”
  • “There are way too many definitions for Grid — we need better standards … and industry-standard definitions.”

And, my favorite:

  • “What a crock … that's not even a Grid!”

According to Robert Fogel, director of worldwide Grid strategy and business development at Intel, it is fruitless to debate what is a Grid and what is not a Grid.

Fogel: “A far more beneficial debate would be a discussion of which use cases should be considered within scope and which ones are out of scope for a given specification or product.”

Fogel believes that blaming the state of confusion surrounding the Grid computing market on a lack of standards is “putting the solution cart before the problem horse.”

This writer couldn't agree more. But, I wanted something more concrete. I wasn't looking for the cart, I was looking for the horse. And I wanted to hear what was going on — straight from the horse's mouth.

So, I made a few calls to see who might be interested in sitting down with me for a bit of a secret chat — a candid discussion with no hype.

It's not hard to find the big-name end-users of Grid computing these days. The vendors quite proudly put them on display, and then work hard to keep them loyal. It's a beautiful thing.

And, like most of us who enjoy the luxury of being backseat drivers, I have some pretty strong feelings already about the winners and the “wannabes” in the Grid market. But, thinking back to some pretty exciting years of HPC innovation, I was wrong once before (ok, maybe twice) — and I still own a wheel barrel full of that worthless stock. So, I must admit, I tend to be a bit less emotional and a lot more skeptical these days.

I know how the marketing drill works. I've been on the other side of the fence, working with customers who know it is in their best interest to paint a rosy picture while they hide their Band-Aids and scars from the public. If things in the Grid market were really as good as some would like us to believe, we'd all be relaxing at some Caribbean resort sipping cool drinks. The square pegs just don't seem to be fitting well in those round holes. I was dialing for answers.

After just a few calls, I had a taker. And while I promised to keep this person's identity anonymous, I don't think the lack of an actual name will detract at all from the impact of this discussion.

So, there we were …

It was a Sunday morning. 10:30 a.m. Just a little chilly with a lingering freshness of the light rain that had fallen the night before. I arrived about 10 minutes early. Our rendezvous point was a tiny French coffee shop located in an almost hidden alley in a city that we won't name. I went in and ordered a large house coffee, with two shots of espresso, and room for lots of cream. With my steaming mug in hand, I strolled outside and grabbed a table that seemed to be offset just enough to give us a sense of privacy. Feeling the chill in the air, I walked across the street to my car to grab my windbreaker out of the trunk. When I returned to the table and sat down, I realized I hadn't cleaned out my jacket pockets since last wearing it for a round of golf.

I pulled out several golf tees, a $20 bill, a cigar cutter, a lighter and two of my favorite cigars — La Aurora Sapphire Preferidos — in their haunting blue canisters. I stared at the cigars. How could I have forgotten two extremely rare cigars like this — and not returned them to my humidor?

As I was pondering my own state of absent mindedness, my guest arrived. We'll just call him Mr. Preferido. We shook hands and he slapped me on the back and said, “Alright — cigars and espresso to start the day. I love it!”

He strolled inside to get some coffee and I thought, “Sure. Why not?” I had just recently been reacquainted with the enjoyment of a good cigar and a strong cup of coffee. And, from experience, I know that many executives seem to be quite reflective when enjoying a good cigar.

Ten minutes later, we were puffing on cigars, talking about golf and slowly working our way around to the topic of Grid computing. But, eventually, we got there.

I should point out that my guest wields a pretty heavy pen. His IT budget is a mid-cap company all in itself. I turned on my tape recorder. We talked. We sipped. We puffed. It was a great day.

Mr. Preferido: “Mike, the problem I see with a number of my peers is that they have been handed this powerful new tool (Grid), and no manual on how to use it. So, they wrap all their thinking around doing the same old job they always did — just trying to use a new tool — when, in fact, they should be thinking of new ways to do the job now that this tool called Grid computing has taken away many of the limitations they previously faced.”

He puffed on his Sapphire stogie, watched the smoke slowly rising to the top of our bistro table umbrella and then he continued.

“Now, I find this fascinating — and relevant. Six out of 10 senior executives surveyed at a recent focus group said they now use some type of electronic, hand-held personal assistant to help manage their lives. Several indicated they were completely organized and running their lives from their cell phone devices. Is it interesting that four out of 10 executives are still holding out and relying on hard copy day planners and some level of support from a trusted personal (human) assistant? Or, is it more interesting that the 60 percent indicated the use of new (PDA) technology for planning and organizing their lives has helped them to change their “processes,” change they way they approach each day, and manage their business and their daily activities?

“To me, that's what Grid is all about. It's about thinking differently. You need to go back and redefine the problems you are trying to address — with an open mind toward the new possibilities that we're starting to see with Grid and SOA.”

“I think a big part of the problem here is in the way we label things. We have too many people moving way too fast wanting to label the solutions without taking time to articulate and fully understand the problems they are trying to address.”

He continued with, “Discussions of market size and available market give me heartburn.”

We'll get back to Mr. Preferido, but first let us frame the problem I'm hoping to address. Several other end-users I spoke with voiced their frustration at trying to understand and model the market dynamics, while several of the vendors, those with a stake in understanding the landscape and available market, voiced their confusion and frustration as coming from the way analysts are looking at the market.

Well, guess what folks. The analysts are every bit as frustrated.

This is a difficult job. We seem to have forgotten that the technology sector lives in a vicious cycle. The end-users tell the analysts what technology they need and what products they will spend money on. Then, the analysts tell the vendors what demographics will be spending money — how much and on what. Then, the vendors use the information from the analysts to validate the available market and make decisions on product direction, engineering, manufacturing and timing. Then, the analysts tell the world how things are going based on the progress of the vendors and the sales and installations of the end-users.

So, imagine how difficult this is when everyone is speaking a different language.

That's pretty much where we are with trying to define the Grid market: square pegs, round holes, different languages.

Kelly Vizzini, chief marketing officer at DataSynapse, summarized it pretty well. “The very fact that Grid computing is applicable across the entire application, system and data stack guarantees that vendors in each space will have their own messaging.”

In my opinion, the industry champions have inadvertently created a communications challenge and it has placed the Grid market in a cloud of confusion. I also think we can better define the Grid market if we step back — or up — and look at Grid within the context of the bigger picture.

Experts such as Fogel and Vizzini, along with well-respected Grid evangelist Wolfgang Gentzsch, a former Sun Grid strategist now with MCNC, agree on a few things, though. The market opportunity for Grid needs to be looked at within the context of its impact on future enterprise infrastructures. Will companies continue to invest in new computing platforms, software and networks without Grid? Sure they will. However, let's not get hung up on trying to define exactly how many dollars are being spent on Grid infrastructures. Instead, let's focus on the benefits brought about by a well-planned Grid implementation.

If you take an existing computing infrastructure and make it Grid-enabled, do you go back and reclassify all the money you spent previously on that infrastructure as an investment in Grid? Of course not. Making it Grid-enabled is adapting it to the times. Money spent to buy servers or clusters prior to the implementation of a Grid is a hardware purchase of servers or clusters and should not be counted as an investment in Grid computing.

Now, back to Mr. Preferido.

We took a break to get some hot coffee and a pastry. Now it was time to get down to something more concrete.

Me: “I heard — very confidentially of course — that your organization is planning a major computing system infrastructure procurement in 2006 that would also represent a major venture into building a Grid computing environment. I heard that you were allocating close to $100 million to build this new Grid computing infrastructure.”

This brought a big smile, a chuckle and a comment of, “Well, isn't that interesting?”

Mr. Preferido: “I know where that number came from and that's not exactly how I portrayed the information.”

Using the base number of $100 million to build a new computing infrastructure, we worked through his very rough plans and agreed that the following would be the most accurate way to categorize how the money was going to be used: $20 million in networking equipment and upgrades; $60 million in new computing platforms, specifically clusters (with software licenses) and a significant amount of storage; $150,000-$200,000 dollars in Grid infrastructure middleware; and the remaining $19 million was for facilities, staff and operations costs.

Now, just to recap, I was told in confidence by someone outside of this organization who frequently states opinion about the potential for the Grid market, that this company was planning an investment of $100 million to build a major Grid computing infrastructure.

Mr. Preferido said he would classify this as a $200,000 Grid sale, as everything would be installed, up and running regardless of their ability to Grid-enable the entire infrastructure.

Do you start to see where the disconnect is? At least one person out there is counting this as a $100 million Grid sale.

The only way to tell what's really going on is to follow the money. I've seen several impressive marketing budgets in the Grid space, but no one is talking about revenue. I've talked to numerous investors about the space and I certainly don't have to be sold on the excitement. But, is anyone really making money in this space?

Once again, I turned to DataSynapse's Vizzini, who told me the company has experienced triple-digit revenue growth every year since its inception. Triple digit revenue growth! That's impressive in any market. And, sure enough — after speaking with a number of end-users — if there's anyone making money out there, I would believe it is DataSynapse.

What I find quite refreshing is that DataSynapse is one of the most conservative companies out there when it comes to talking about the Grid computing market. The DataSynapse spokespeople are very careful to clarify, be factual and avoid hype. Bravo.

We discussed some more that may show up in a future column, but we had to bring this interview to a close. I feel like I was able to make more headway in understanding some of the Grid market dynamics just by taking an hour to enjoy a good cigar, sip some very strong coffee and have a non-hurried conversation where no one was trying to sell anything.

Thanks, Mr. Preferido. I will be sending you that box of cigars as promised.

So, if we don't bog ourselves down in the mud with all the confusion over labels, and if we focus more on the big picture where Grid is an enabling component of a new enterprise architecture, and we stop trying to create a market projection that's intended to pad an ambitious marketing plan, we may just get through this.

The pegs do fit — if you take the time to find the right holes. Maybe everyone is just trying to move a little too fast.

There are some great success stories out there. There are many interesting examples of Grid being applied to boost productivity and performance. And there's a tremendous opportunity to start thinking about the way we approach computational and data manipulation problems. Therein lies the challenge.

It's about a new way of thinking. Think about it.

And while you're thinking about it, relax. It's all good.

Enjoy!

About Mike Bernhardt

Mike Bernhardt is a contributing writer and columnist for GRIDtoday and a consultant with 30 years of experience in helping companies develop sound, executable take-to-market strategy. Bernhardt can be reached at [email protected].

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