Who’s Afraid of Grid Computing?

By Kelly Vizzini, Contributing Author

August 8, 2005

At the GRIDtoday VIP Summit in Chicago earlier last month, I gave a presentation that was a bit offbeat. Much is being written about the how Grid is a paradigm-shifting, barrier-breaking technology that is going to transform not just the data center, but the way enterprises develop and deploy applications. And while the marketer in me appreciates such boundless enthusiasm (and the scads of news coverage the topic generates), I thought it would be a productive session to look at the topic from another angle. Why are more companies not adopting Grid? Or, why are they not adopting more of it, faster?

What follows here is a narrative of the five reasons presented during that session.

1. Lack of Understanding

For fans of “Saturday Night Live,” you may recall a skit with Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner as a couple debating the benefits of a new product called “Shimmer,” which — according to the sales rep, Chevy Chase — was both a dessert topping and a floorwax.

Even those of you who never saw the original may be familiar with this vignette, especially if you've been in the technology business long enough. What is it — a dessert topping or a floorwax? It's a pop culture reference often used when products don't fit neatly into one category. Given how much airtime is used defining Grid, it's an analogy that's quite apropos.  “Well, it's a cluster, it's a Grid, it's virtual infrastructure … ” and the list goes on.

When we were at the last GRIDtoday Summit in London this May, we spent time the first morning debating the differences between clusters and Grids (and the implied value proposition of each.) Admittedly, it was a slightly painful discussion. John Hurley of Boeing gave a brilliant talk about the reality that enterprises don't care what we call it as long as we can clearly articulate what this technology does for the enterprise.

As distributed computing has evolved, many catch-phrases have been used, especially as marketing machines continue pumping millions of dollars into propagating each unique label. For some companies, it's software. For others, it's hardware or services. And sometimes, it's a vision or a brand that encompasses all three. But while vendors develop new buzzwords in the hopes of creating a market distinction and — we hope — a market advantage, in the end, what we've really created is confusion.

Without question, if our buyers — the users — don't have a common language to discuss problems and solutions, it slows things down. This confusion perpetuates a lack of understanding about this technology. At DataSynapse, 18 months ago, the questions we were fielding during evaluations centered more around “What is Grid?” As the market matured, the questions have shifted to: What does it do, exactly? What will the impact be? Why do I want it? And probably most frequently these days, “How do I get started?!”

To address this new need for customer understanding and action, it's imperative to steer conversations toward the problems Grid can solve, including proven examples of what this technology can do for their businesses.

2. Resistance to Change

Another hurdle that can't be discounted is the natural resistance to change that exists within the enterprise. Grid evangelists sometimes encounter the attitude that “good enough” is good enough. Interestingly, though, the old adage about not fixing things that aren't broken doesn't apply in this case because, while “broken” might be the wrong word to describe enterprise technology today, there is pain within the enterprise when application performance, scale and reliability issues arise. But still, it's difficult to battle inertia and to get folks to embrace new ways of solving old problems. This is because — shock of shocks — new technology requires new skill sets to deploy and support it.

For folks who've spent years building intricate “plumbing,” the care and feeding legacy distributed systems often require can translate into job security, even if those homegrown solutions are not be getting the job done as efficiently or effectively as possible. And, lastly, change often equals risk. Proponents of Grid must be able to articulate the risk/rewards scenario and the expected impact of a successful Grid implementation

The fact of the matter is, Grid represents both an evolution and a revolution. We all acknowledge that most enterprises have been doing some form of distributed computing for years. So perhaps, implementing Grid is merely an evolution from homegrown to packaged technology, so enterprises can redeploy IT resources — away from “minding the infrastructure” and onto other value-add projects.

And yet, the impact of this technology — up and down the entire stack — means that it is also revolutionary. Why? Because it has the power to potentially change the way enterprises buy and deploy software and hardware, and, ultimately, the way they manage a service-oriented enterprise.

3. Cultural Impact

Closely related to “resistance to change,” the fear of the unknown prevents many a journey. Because it's not well understood, cultural impact is one of the more widely reported inhibitors to Grid adoption.

As Grid software breaks down the silos that exist between applications and business units, the simple fact is that people have to learn to share. Grid delivers the power to distribute application service requests across a pool of shared resources that are dynamically expanding and contracting according to business demand — regardless of who owns those systems or where they're located.

The technology exists, but enterprises are simply not set up that way. If one business unit pays for those resources, there's a proprietary sense of “Why should I share? Let them go pay for their own.” Often referred to as “server-hugging,” this is one of the most common sticking points cited early in Grid software evaluations. Even if the resistance to sharing is overcome, there are still other questions to answer.

Users often ask, “How do I know that, if I share, I'll still get what I need done, when I need it?” What's lacking is the sense of trust in the Grid's ability to guarantee execution of service requests based on policy, priority and user-defined business rules.

4. Technology Impact

Though many companies have already started adopting Grid, there are still many questions around where the technology fits within the IT landscape. How will it impact current and planned infrastructure? Most significantly, what applications fit on the Grid? Which make sense and which don't?

For example, during our implementations, applications are assessed based on multiple criteria (e.g., unit of work, I/O requirements, whether the workload is synchronous/asynchronous, stateless/stateful, etc.). Applications are then plotted in a quadrant that maps ease of integration against business value.

Application Roadmap

In Figure 1, applications that fall into the green quadrant (the low-hanging fruit) are often characterized as computationally intense or HPC. They represent the most significant pain points, and because they often have work that is “easily parallelizable,” Grid-enabling them is somewhat straightforward. Unfortunately, the perception exists today that Grid is only good for HPC applications. While it is an obvious and easy place to start for most enterprises, it doesn't represent the sum total of opportunity for Grid within an enterprise.

There are two other hot-buttons that fall under the heading of Technology Impact: standards and security.

Standards are evolving, but slowly. Because of the overlap with so many other technologies like Web services, SOA and traditional distributed computing, a number of standards bodies are developing standards related to Grid computing including the W3C, OASIS, IETF, DMTF, WS/I, EGA, GGF and others. While it is not practical for vendors to support all of the standards in the space, a combination of industry adoption and standards maturity will eventually clear away some of the confusion.

Security also gets a lot of airtime, especially in situations for which the enterprise is deploying Grid across its desktops. In a shared environment like this, IT must be able to reassure users that the only thing being scavenged is processing cycles — not proprietary, business critical information.

5. Software Licensing

Although this topic could be logically grouped under “Technology Impact,” it's important enough to deserve it's own place on the top five list. Arguably, software licensing is probably the most-talked-about reason (right behind the cultural inhibitors) to explain why companies are slow to adopt Grid.

In a recent and comprehensive report on software licensing, the451 Group asserts: “As [enterprises] evolve into using Grids as more mainstream technology, the restrictions of current software licensing will become an even greater obstacle.”

It's a pretty succinct summation of the limitations that current licensing practices (per CPU, per seat, per user) place on Grid adoption. Without question, the new computing models will require new licensing models. Grid is just one of many catalysts spurring this dialogue.

While much has been reported about how ISVs are uninterested or unwilling to address Grid, there is progress. A growing list of ISVs have embraced Grid because it's a way to boost customer satisfaction (e.g., Algorithmics, Calypso, Milliman, Reuters, etc.). In some cases, they're announcing OEM agreements that embed Grid capabilities in their software to offer out-of-the-box integration to their install base — and all the inherent benefits in improved application performance that come with it.


So, who's not afraid of Grid computing? Actually, there is a prestigious and growing list of global firms — many of which are household brand names — that are willing to speak publicly about the significant and measurable value they are deriving from Grid. Moreover, these are companies that, in many cases, are expanding the size and scope of their existing implementations to move toward enterprise Grids — virtualizing multiple applications across multiple lines of businesses and geographies. The case studies are out there — at events like the GRIDtoday VIP Summits and the upcoming GridWorld — and anyone who cares to can who is utilizing Grid and how.

About Kelly Vizzini

As chief marketing officer at DataSynapse, Kelly Vizzini works to leverage the company's existing successes and domain expertise to build a brand identity that positions DataSynapse as the de facto standard in the U.S. and European markets for distributed computing solutions. Prior to her role at DataSynapse, Vizzini held marketing positions at several software companies including Prescient, Optum, Metasys and InfoSystems. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and communications from the University of South Carolina.

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