‘The Big Switch’ and Your Datacenter

By Derrick Harris

January 14, 2008

Like every other IT editor, reporter, blogger and pundit, I have read Nicholas Carr’s new book “The Big Switch.” And, like every other IT editor, reporter, blogger and pundit, I have something to say about it.

The first thing I have to say is that Carr’s predictions, as well as those of his sources, for the future interaction between human beings and the Web or, as he calls it, “the World Wide Computer,” are both fascinating and unnerving. The prospect of having Google working directly in tandem with the human brain, for example, excites me when I consider the ease with which we would have access to seemingly boundless stores of knowledge and information. The human species, it seems, would be able to function more intelligently and more efficiently than anyone outside the world of science-fiction ever thought possible. The same types of possibilities hold true for Microsoft’s patented method of using the human body as a bus to connect “a network of devices coupled to a single body.” By melding the best of human capabilities with the best of computing capabilities, there truly exists the potential to change the world.

Of course, change isn’t always for the better, and any technological advances that serve the greater good can be used for nefarious purposes, as well. One need only — as Carr has done — look at the preponderance of malware roaming the Web, just waiting to infect unprotected computers. There also are, as Carr points out, serious concerns regarding what might happen to our brains should we become too dependent on technology to do our thinking for us. Additionally, it would be naïve of us to think that the vast amount of data collected about us every time we make even the simplest online transaction is not being used to further corporate control over our very beings. But these personal and societal issues are subjects for another day, or at least for another publication, as we are concerned with how the expanding computing utility will affect the enterprise.

As far as that goes, I think GRIDtoday has been ahead of the curve in touting the inherent benefits of utility computing. Carr uses “The Big Switch” to inform users about the utility-style offerings of companies like Amazon, through S3 and EC2, and Savvis, as well as by software-as-a-service providers like Salesforce.com. He also lays out the case for adopting such solutions by pointing out the significant savings in hardware, software, infrastructure and personnel costs required to establish and maintain today’s enterprise datacenters. Long-time readers of this publication certainly are familiar with the concept of accessing HPC resources from supercomputers, and more recently via Web-based methods like TeraGrid’s Science Gateways and Sun’s Network.com, and in the past year we have seen an increase in utility offerings aimed at everyday enterprises. Companies like ServePath and LayeredTech (which utilizes 3Tera’s AppLogic software), as well as the aforementioned Amazon and Savvis, are utilizing grid and virtualization technologies to offer highly flexible, highly dynamic solutions aimed not at R&D departments, but at users with everyday, mission-critical applications.

As Carr notes, however, and utility providers have made perfectly clear to me, this transition will not happen overnight. End-users of these utilities most often begin by transitioning one or two applications into the utility environment to test the waters. It is only once users feel comfortable with the process, the price and the results that they consider wading in deeper. Considering the relative youth of these types of solutions, it shouldn’t be surprising that using them is nowhere near the normal way of doing business.

If I were a betting man, though, I would not put my money on large enterprises that have spent untold millions on their datacenters sublimating the way they do computing. There will be a liquid stage, and that most likely will be in the form of any number of solutions that utilize distributed computing and application virtualization to turn existing resources into internal utilities wherefrom jobs run transparently across an aggregated pool that bears no mind to software or hardware dependencies. From IBM’s WebSphere XD to GigaSpaces’ eXtreme Application Platform to DataSynapse’s FabricServer (to name a very few), software vendors understand that yesterday’s expensive, inefficient and increasingly complex application silos simply won’t cut it anymore. What started as “grid computing” for compute-intensive jobs has evolved into “cloud computing,” “real-time infrastructure” or any number of labels for general-purpose, transactional and data-intensive applications — and it’s real. If Carr is correct and even the largest corporations will one day access all their computing needs from somewhere in the infinite cloud of the Web, the various software products that turn those hundreds or thousands of previously siloed servers into company-wide, service-oriented utilities will almost certainly ease the way.

On an interesting side note, several software vendors of which I am aware already are utilizing utility computing to offer utility services to their customers. Network.com powers Callidus’ on-demand sales performance management software, as well as Infosolve’s data quality services, and Amazon CTO Werner Vogels has said that a growing use case for his company’s EC2 service is in providing a virtual environment to house software-as-a-service offerings. I guess it makes sense for providers of utility software services to be early adopters of utility computing services.

Getting to this week’s issue, notable items include “HP Intros Grid-Based Medical Archiving Solution”; “Views from the IEEE e-Science and Grid Computing Conference”; “3Tera, GlobalLogic Partner on Virtual Appliance Creation”; “NCOIC Explores Utility Computing, Grid, Virtualization”; and “Five Immutable Laws of Virtualization Security.” Also, be sure to read SANRAD CEO Dave DuPont’s feature on the symbiotic nature of storage and server virtualization.

—–

Comments about GRIDtoday are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Derrick Harris, at [email protected].

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