Sun Grid National Security Threat Overstated

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

March 13, 2006

If one were to believe the recent press regarding the U.S. Department of State’s role in delaying Sun Microsystems’ launch of its Sun Grid utility, it could be concluded that unchecked access to the grid’s resources would constitute a grave and serious threat to national security. It could also be concluded that the decision to delay the rollout was based on this fear, and that this fear also led to Sun abandoning it global vision for the grid, deciding instead to launch only in the United States.

However, said Aisling MacRunnels, Sun’s director of utility computing, that simply is not the case. That said, she does acknowledge that the company has run into some problems for Sun Grid, “but not insurmountable ones.” In fact, she said portal access to the Sun Grid will be available to United States users — anyone with an Internet connection — within the month. A commercial version of the Sun Grid has been available for the better part of a year.

As for the issue with having to restrict access to users in certain countries, MacRunnels said it is not about national security, but rather about export control. According to MacRunnels, there are issues with international commerce that need some additional research, hence the initial United States-only rollout.

For now, Sun is planning to launch the utility in the United Kingdom within a few months of the U.S. rollout — the company is currently working through issues of what countries the United Kingdom can support. Sun is also working with some Asian governments, and is looking at opening grids in other European countries, as well. But, MacRunnels said, they want to get everything running smoothly and get used to user-patterns, etc., in the United States first.

“What we’ve realized,” she said, “is where we had a vision of a very much global Sun Grid, we will now implement that global Sun Grid vision with a localized presence.”

Despite this change of plans, though, MacRunnels does not see these so much as a problem, but more so as Sun’s cross to bear, so to speak, for being a trailblazer. “This is something any company would have to face,” she said. ” We are pushing the boundaries here because we are the first to try and offer this type of very accessible utility.”

It should be noted, however, that there are security issues present, and that Sun president Jonathan Schwartz’s statement about Sun’s servers being “considered munitions by the federal government” was not completely tongue-in-cheek.

MacRunnels said that users signing up for the Sun Grid will have to undergo a DRPL (Denied or Restricted Persons List) check, which will compare names to those listed in various federal databases. However, she added that this process won’t take long, and that Sun’s 24-hour waiting period was put in place to do more thorough checks in the case of false positive matches, among other issues. While there will be some people who are refused, she said, some will have access to the grid in 20 minutes.

MacRunnels also made sure to point out that any security-related delays should neither be seen as a problem on Sun’s side nor be regarded as a harbinger of problems to come with the service. “This is not a Sun issue, but a generic issue,” she said, adding that these are issues anyone in this global, Internet-based economy has to face.

At the end of the day, though, security is an issue, though how big the issue might be is in the eye of the beholder. “Getting access to thousands of CPUs from your laptop, obviously, does require getting signoff,” MacRunnels said, “as if you’re getting signoff for a gun.”

As for how this latest delay will affect the number of users, MacRunnels doesn’t see there being much backlash at all. Users of the commercial version have given it glowing reviews, she said, and the company has plenty of interested users, across a wide range of vertical markets, for the general, portal-access version. She said the initial rollout will target traditional HPC applications, and expects momentum to build to the point where, within a year, the Sun Grid will be a very rich environment with applications in numerous areas.

Why will customers overlook security issues, whether on a national scale or simply those associated with participating in a multi-tenant environment? The answer, according to MacRunnels, is that smaller companies will not be able to resist the time and money ($1/CPU/hour) benefits of using the grid.

“For the last few years,” she said, “innovation was really open only to those who have a lot of money. Now, anyone can hack at it from their underwear.”

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