Year One Brings SMB Success for Digipede

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

August 14, 2006

It has been just over a year since Digipede first began shipping its flagship solution — the Digipede Network — and I recently spoke with CEO John Powers about where the company has come in that time.

If you have been following Grid news lately, you likely have noticed Digipede coming on a pretty regular basis. Just within the last two months, for example, the company has announced as customers two relatively different organizations: Smith Breeden, a financial research and analysis firm, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When asked what has led to such a wide breadth of customers, Powers points to the simplicity of his company's product versus those of competing vendors.

“I think there's a great number of Grid applications out there where the threshold has been too high,” he said. “People just perceive it as being too difficult to move from a single processor or a dedicated cluster to a grid, and we're out to lower the barriers there so that more and more applications become very simple to move from a single machine to many machines.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, Powers said, is a prime example of simplicity winning out. Although the organization has significant amounts of supercomputing resources and expertise, it perceived the process of adapting this particular storm modeling application as being too complex. However, Powers added, the Corps decided to run the application on the Digipede Network, and was modeling storms within a few days.

Earlier in the year, the mainstream IT world took notice of the Digipede Network, with Software Development magazine giving the solution a four-star rating (out of five). Although the review noted that configuring the first few jobs is not necessarily as easy as advertised, the simplicity of adding new nodes and users is cited as a strength. In addition, the Software & Information Industry Association selected the Digipede Network as a finalist in the “Best Distributed Computing Solution” category in this year's Codie Awards.

Again, Powers chalks this recognition up to the solution's simplicity. “The thing that's been holding Grid computing in a lot of areas has been needless complexity,” he said. Essentially, he added, if you make it easier, people will take notice.

But industry recognition and big-time user adoption aside, Digipede is, in part by design, a company for the little guy. When I spoke with Powers last year about the product's release, he predicted the success his company would see around the Digipede Network Team Edition, which supports up to 20 agents, in the SMB market. Well, one year out, it seems he wasn't lying.

“The SMB market … has been very fruitful for us,” Powers said, “because there are so many specialized applications. Everyone from a boutique finance consultancy to a firm full of architects or engineers — they all have tremendous computing needs, but they don't have very large IT budgets.”

Indeed, Pacific Event Productions, a San Diego-based event planning company, fits that bill. The company, which manages everything from small parties to major corporate events, including Super Bowl XL in Detroit, had migrated to a Web portal so employees could access documents and print as PDF files reports from whatever job site on which they happened to be. However, when many users began logging on simultaneously, with some attempting to print reports of 100- plus pages, Pacific Event's Web server started to experience some serious performance degradation. Enter Digipede.

“We came across the Digipede [Network], and that was just an amazing thing for us because now, instead of having to redesign the entire structure, we can offload those specific requests for processing power to computer systems we currently own,” said Glen Boyer, IT manager for Pacific Event Productions.

The company has offloaded its PDF conversion and subsequent print requests to a team of 10 machines running the Digipede software, and has seen what Boyer calls “tremendous” results. Boyer said machines were selected to run the Digipede agent based on processor speed and idle time, and the Digipede Network is set up to run the biggest jobs on the fastest available machines.

Whereas in the past someone trying to print a 100-page document could have caused a backlog and led to dozens of complaints of slow computers, everything is running smoothly with the Digipede Network in place. “Now, that 100-page job gets put off on computer No. 1, and I have two through 10 that can do the little nickel-and-dime jobs,” said Boyer.

While it is the effectiveness and simplicity of the Digipede Network that has Boyer speaking its praises, it was the pricing model that first caught his attention. Boyer said he looked at several Grid computing solutions, but was put off by pricing models that had you spending $100,000 in the blink of an eye, with prices rising significantly higher with each machine you decide to add. Alternatively, Boyer described Digipede as being “very price-conscious.”

“I can do this million-dollar job for $10,000 with the Digipede system,” said Boyer. “That's the miracle of the system.”

Miraculous? Probably not. Stroke of genius? Perhaps. The low entry-point for the Team Edition is the main draw for SMBs, and Powers realizes just how much potential exists in this market. In speaking about Pacific Event Productions, Powers said the following: “Is that High-Performance Computing? Is that Grid computing? Certainly, it's not the sort of thing that most people talk about in this market, but it certainly is [Grid computing]. How many national labs are there? Now, how many guys like Glen [Boyer] are there? You begin to see where we're getting interest in this market.”

Continued Powers, “Ten machines isn't even a footnote at the national labs, but 10 machines for this guy makes all the difference in the world.”

However, even with all the success the company has seen in the world of SMBs, Powers is quick to note that Digipede is seeing business from large companies, as well. In particular, Powers mentioned a fund management company currently managing more than $100 billion in assets, that has seen increases in both performance and reliability since moving its entire trading analytics platform from an in-house-developed distributed system to the Digipede Network.

“When you build it yourself, you probably only built it for a single purpose, and when you change that purpose it's hard to expand and maintain,” said Powers. “If you're a fund manager, you're core compentency is in computational finance, not in distributed computing.”

Of course, one can't talk about Digipede without mentioning that aside from its low entry-point, the company's other claim to uniqueness is that the Digipede Network is .NET-based and runs only on Microsoft Windows. While this trait separates Digipede from its competitors in the Grid middleware space, it can also serve to isolate. In fact, in a February report by Aidan Biggins of The 451 Group, he writes that Digipede is struggling with attracting ISV partners and, “In the end, Digipede's ongoing credibility could use a commercial nudge from Microsoft or its partners.”

Well, Powers stands by the Microsoft-centric approach, stating that, “We're very happy with the decision we made three years ago to stay with the Microsoft platform because trying to support multiple platforms at once slows down the development cycle and makes it harder to release new features” — something he said Digipede has been doing with regular updates to the solution. As for the push from Microsoft, the release of Windows Compute Cluster Server could offer just that.

Powers said Digipede has been working closely with Microsoft in the marketing and sales of Windows Compute Cluster Server, and at the recent Securities Industry Association Technology Management Conference, Digipede, Microsoft and HP demoed the Digipede Network running on top of Windows Compute Cluster Server with HP ProLiant servers, showing how to speed up everything from .NET applications to spreadsheets. If Digipede can benefit from its partnership with Microsoft, Compute Cluster Server is likely where it will happen.

“In a world where Microsoft has not been considered a High-Performance Computing option, the release of CCS really validates what we've been saying all along: most customers would love to see HPC incorporated more into the mainstream of their existing computing infrastructures,” said Powers. “We think Microsoft has done a terrific job of integrating Compute Cluster Server with the rest of the Windows infrastructure that you find in most companies.”

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