A Closer Look at the Media Grid

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

August 21, 2006

A few weeks ago when the Grid Institute announced that Sun Microsystems had joined on as an official Media Grid partner, it served notice that Media Grid, a project offering a utility computing model for digital media content, is now accepting commercial partners looking to be involved in this cutting edge project.

While Sun is the first vendor to officially sign on, Grid Institute director Aaron Walsh said other leading vendors are showing interest. Currently, he said, individuals from companies like HP, Oracle and IBM are working on the project, and he believes it is very possible that these companies will join now that membership has been opened.

The Media Grid operates using a three-tiered organizational model: the Grid Institute, which manages business relationships and setting up and managing the network; MediaGrid.org, which is responsible for developing the grid's open standards; and the academic tier, which seeks out grants and performs research on the Media Grid. Vendor partners like Sun are given the opportunity to participate in both the Grid Institute — where they can have input on the overall direction of the project, intellectual property agreements, etc. — and MediaGrid.org — where individuals from partner companies participate in technical working groups looking to develop the open standards on which the Media Grid is basing its value proposition to users. In addition, companies or organizations that wish to provide HPC resources to the Media Grid will receive payment or time credits.

The academic tier is led by Boston College, and also includes institutions from around the globe, including Japan's University of Aizu and Singapore's Institute of High Performance Computing. Walsh said he expects more Japanese involvement, as well as involvement from China and Taiwan, in the future. “A key to this is international collaboration with companies, universities and other government infrastructures,” he said.

As for Sun's involvement, it will be serving the roles of both service provider and technical resource, as the company is offering part of its Sun Grid as a resource, and will be “intimately involved” in standards activity. Aisling MacRunnels, Sun's senior director of utility computing, said its partnership with the Media Grid is based on natural synergy — especially seeing as how the standards-based, multi-tenant model being sought for the Media Grid is currently being done with the Sun Grid. Standards development is really a key element to the partnership, though.

“We're a huge supporter of standards,” said MacRunnels. “We believe, especially in this area, it is critical that we align standards as we drive to grid-based utilities.”

As part of its standards work, Dan Hushon, Sun Grid senior director and chief technologist, has been appointed a one-year fellowship to work with several of the MediaGrid.org working groups.

Of course, all this talk about standards is not without a good reason. As was noted earlier, open standards are one of the main selling points for the Media Grid, as they eliminate the threat of vendor lock-in.

“The user has no idea where the job is being executed for a reason,” said Walsh. “We take away the proprietary nature of the vendor and we give an open standard that does the routing and does the custom job creation and handing off to the backend service provider. What that gives the user is transparency.”

In fact, the Media Grid already has one potential user raring to go once the standards are adopted and the grid is ready for public use: Cambridge, Mass.- based drug development company Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The company, which currently uses a 120-processor Linux cluster for its HPC needs, is actually willing to commit heavily into the Media Grid.

Paul Dupuis, Vertex's senior director of information technology, said he is sick of playing the upgrade game with in-house clusters, and would prefer utilizing a utility service for his HPC needs. However, he noted, current utility options require too much vendor lock-in, which is why he is so keen on the Media Grid. “Media Grid intrigues me because of their efforts to develop a standardized protocol that spans across different platform, manufacturers and vendors for parallel computing,” said Dupuis.

That said, Dupuis concedes that because the Media Grid is not yet ready for public use, Vertex is still quite a ways from running jobs on it. “Standards body participation is really hard to guess,” he said. “It could happen in a matter of months, or it could be another year or two years or three years before the standards are really approved and settled upon.”

He noted, though, that he hopes it's sooner rather than later. “We're poised to basically commit far more fully once the standards are in place.”

In fact, the extent to which Vertex is willing to commit shows a lot of faith in the Media Grid to provide truly reliable, powerful service for the digital media community. Dupuis said the company not only will buy cycles through the Media Grid, but also will likely contribute its in-house cluster as a resource on the grid. “Much beyond that, I suspect we'll probably at some point get out of the business of having a [cluster] here in-house and move entirely to a utility computing model,” he added. The Grid Institute's Walsh noted that some individuals at Turner Broadcasting are looking into a similar arrangement.

While Vertex certainly would be a pioneering user of the public, commercial version of the Media Grid, there already have been users from the academic and non-profit sectors. Two specific examples Walsh cited are the Immersive Education program at Boston College, which uses virtual reality in virtual classrooms over the Internet, and the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program, which has used the Media Grid for the last few years to deliver a variety of public service announcements on its Web site, and is now furthering its use with the launch of TotsTV.

Scheduled to launch in December to benefit the Toys for Tots Foundation, the family-friendly online channel features, among other things: high-quality video (television shows and movies), music and interactive games for children of all ages; education and learning content designed to teach children while they watch, listen and play; and a simple, easy-to-use interface designed exclusively for children and young adults. TotsTV is a “child safe” channel in the Media Grid's larger Media on Demand (MoD) system, and is receiving rendering and storage services and interactive 3-D capabilities from Media Grid partners Sun Microsystems (via Sun Grid) and Media Machines (via its Flux solution), respectively.

Further illustrating the synergy between Sun Grid and the Media Grid, Sun's MacRunnels added, “As they roll out TotsTV, etc., they really need that type of standard interface, such that they can acquire and use content across the board. A lot of what we're trying to do just resonates very well with where they're driving.”

However, regardless of what projects are underway, what partners join or what companies are lining up to access the Media Grid once it is made public, the bottom line is that there is a long way to go before before it is ready for mass consumption. However, Vertex's Dupuis, clearly a big supporter of the project, believes Walsh, with his history in standards development, will drive the Media Grid to success.

“I have the confidence,” Dupuis said, “that if there is anybody out there who can actually get all the major business players to agree, adopt and endorse a set of standards in this area over time, it's Aaron.”

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