Digipede president and CEO John Powers took some time to answer our questions about Digipede Network v.2.0 — which sees improvements around developer-friendliness, latency and interoperability with Microsoft products — and how it will set up the company for future growth.
GRIDtoday: What are the key improvements with Digipede Network 2.0? What will users notice first and foremost?
JOHN POWERS: The improvements in 2.0 all reinforce our three key value propositions – application performance, simplicity, and focus on the Microsoft platform.
In terms of performance, users will see improved throughput thanks to more flexible ways to make use of multi-core and multi-CPU machines. We’ve also reduced latency throughout the system, which will be noticeable in certain types of applications.
In terms of simplicity, we’ve improved the user interface for Digipede Control, allowing administrators to manipulate larger numbers of Digipede Agents easily. As the size of our customer installations continues to increase, the ability to manage more Agents, resource pools, users, and applications from a simple UI is critical. We’ve also added some functionality to provide information even when you’re away from Digipede Control, such as email notification of various events (exceptions, job completion, and so on).
In terms of Microsoft focus, we’ve continued to stress simplicity and security by leveraging the huge investments Microsoft has made in the past few years. The Digipede Network 2.0 uses Windows Authentication and Active Directory, so Digipede users can use their Windows credentials instead of creating Digipede logins and passwords. We’ve also included a Visual Studio 2005 Package that greatly simplifies debugging distributed applications from the same tools developers already use.
Gt: You mentioned over the summer that v. 2.0 will be even more developer-friendly and will improve on latency manageability. Now that the product has been announced, can you detail how have you addressed these issues?
POWERS: We’ve focused on developers and architects since the beginning, because in our view hardly anyone else in this business has. Grid computing will only be a mainstream technology when we make the process of building distributed applications as familiar and simple as developing any other type of application – and Digipede has been working to do just that.
So let me drill down a bit on that earlier point about our new debugging package for Visual Studio 2005. Debugging remote applications has traditionally been one of the most complicated and time-consuming parts of deploying robust enterprise-ready applications on a grid. With the new Visual Studio debugging package, Digipede has now broken this barrier – developers can debug distributed applications from within their own debugging environment on a single workstation. That may sound minor and kind of geeky, but it helps our customers and ISV partners get their distributed applications completed and into production faster than ever before.
We’ve also expanded our acclaimed Digipede Framework Software Development Kit (SDK) to include support for a wider range of development patterns, with lots more sample code. How do we work with Java, how do we automate distribution of dlls developed with Matlab, how do we use Powershell, all kinds of good stuff for developers is either directly in the 2.0 SDK, or documented on our community forum.
And of course, our “developer friendly” approach includes keeping the Digipede Network Developer Edition free of charge.
How we made improvements in latency is proprietary – but we did.
Gt: What about v. 2.0’s integration with Microsoft products? What have you done along this front?
POWERS: I already mentioned the new Windows Authentication, Active Directory, and Visual Studio integration points, so let’s talk for a bit about Excel and Excel Services. We all know that Excel is among the most widely used applications around, but did you know it’s also the most popular software development package in the world? By some measures anyway, there are more software developers using Excel to build applications than any other tool. We’ve seen competitors go through amazing contortions to support a very narrow class of Excel users with grid computing – forcing users to translate calculations into command-line executables, or even moving compute-intensive calculations into Java – just to claim their grid products are “compatible” with Excel.
Digipede has taken a far more natural path, allowing the Excel developer to work within familiar tools, to create .NET objects or COM objects for distribution and execution on the Digipede Network. Whether it’s a spreadsheet power user armed with only VBA or a .NET developer dropping .NET code behind Excel, this allows users to build “supercomputing spreadsheets” without sacrificing the tools and techniques already familiar to so many Excel users and Windows developers.
Likewise, the new SharePoint tool called Excel Services has a lot of promise for making spreadsheets an intrinsic part of a services oriented architecture. The Digipede Network can ensure that those services are highly scalable.
Gt: Have you addressed virtualization at all in v. 2.0, from either the application or VM management level?
POWERS: Indeed we have. The Digipede Network runs great inside a VM, which can make deployment very simple in enterprise IT environments. We have not built our own VM “manager,” but there are lots of those out there already. In terms of application virtualization, that’s been an area of focus for us since the beginning. The Digipede Network is really a robust set of services on which grid-aware applications can run, without worrying about the specific machine or OS version on which they run. Those services allow the application to take advantage of hundreds or thousands of machines, without managing all the plumbing required to deploy the application across all those resources. In other words, the Digipede Network allows you to virtualize applications just as other tools allow you to virtualize your hardware and operating system.
Gt: How do you think the functionalities and abilities of the new release will appeal to customers that Digipede – and distributed computing, in general – has yet to reach?
POWERS: I’ll take that as two separate questions. While about a third of Digipede’s customers are large enterprises (accounting for more than half our revenue), those customers have bought primarily at the department level until recently. As we’ve moved into larger enterprise deployments over the last year, we’ve seen the need to manage larger numbers of Agents – both programmatically and through the UI. By improving the ease of manipulating larger grids in Digipede Control, and by adding new functionality in our SDK for allocating those Agents to applications, we can support larger and larger deployments within the enterprise. So the new functionality in 2.0 will help us compete for very large projects.
As far as new markets for distributed computing in general, that’s been important to us from the beginning. By creating a package that’s radically easier to buy, install, learn, and use than other grid solutions, we’ve lowered the threshold for customers moving from “no grid” to “grid.” The Digipede Network Version 2.0 continues our focus in this area.
The visibility we have gained since winning Microsoft’s 2007 ISV Innovation Partner of the Year award has helped as well. The Microsoft community has needed a general-purpose scalability platform optimized for Windows and .NET for a long time, and the word has been spreading in that community – Digipede has got it. Microsoft’s public recognition of Digipede’s role in this area has been a powerful signal to its customers and to its other ISV partners. So Version 2.0 is well positioned to meet the needs of mainstream users who have been searching for such a scalability solution.
Gt: Along the same line, how do you expect 2.0 will affect Digipede’s bottom line? Will the aforementioned users sign up in droves? Will existing customers bring even more nodes online?
POWERS: We’ll see, won’t we? Certainly, some of the changes were driven by input from our existing customers, and some of them plan to expand their installations. Our growth over the past year has exceeded our own expectations, but I’m not going to make predictions here. We’ll let the market decide that.
Gt: Overall, what sets v. 2.0 apart from the original Digipede Network release, and what sets it apart from other grid or distributed solutions on the market?
POWERS: Even though there are a lot of improvements in 2.0, it’s an evolutionary release – we’ve been careful to build on the feature set our customers like, without weighing it down with needless complexity. So other than the specific features I’ve called out so far, I hope not much sets 2.0 apart from 1.3 and earlier releases of the Digipede Network. Our current users will find it familiar — “the same but better.” New users will find it even easier to put to work than before.
As for what sets it apart from other grid or distributed solutions – that’s easy: “application performance,” including the ability to scale down to 5 or 10 nodes as efficiently as we scale up to thousands; “simplicity,” including the ability to be up and running in half an hour, and adapt your own application to the grid with as few as 20-30 lines of code; and “Microsoft focus,” so our customers are not stuck with some “least common denominator” level of functionality. If you need scalability for your Windows applications, you don’t want to scale out using a grid solution built for UNIX or Linux.
Gt: Every Digipede customer with whom I’ve spoken has waxed poetic about its ease of use, and it seems like that’s been taken to an even higher level in v. 2.0. Looking forward, what can Digipede do to continue to improve the solution?
POWERS: First, I’m glad to hear customers tell you that. As you know, that’s been our focus since the beginning.
I think we can still do a lot to improve our solution, but that you’ll see those improvements centered on the same three areas I highlighted earlier: application performance, simplicity, and Microsoft focus. There are lots of ways we can expand the space of applications for which we deliver improved application performance — and we will. There are certainly ways we can make our product easier to use, especially for customers with many thousands of Agents – and we will. And there are a number of places within the Microsoft technology stack where we can improve our integration further – and we will.
In addition to those three categories, I’d say we can do a better job in the area of integration with existing ISV solutions. We’ve announced a few partnerships in that area in the past year, but you’ll see more in the coming year. I know for sure we (and the whole industry) can do a better job in the area of integration among grid and cluster vendors, and I hope we’ll see some real movement in this area in the next year.