Has Sun Found Network.com’s Killer App?

By Derrick Harris

February 25, 2008

When Sun announced a couple of weeks ago that it had expanded the number of applications available on Network.com, I have to admit that I was less than excited to hear all about it. After all, I’ve been openly rooting for the success of Sun’s high-performance utility platform, and, truth be told, adding some new computational mathematics apps isn’t going to propel Network.com into any sort of mainstream success any time soon. However, my ears perked up when I was told about how an open-source, animated movie project utilizing a video rendering application residing on Network.com’s Application Catalog.

The project, dubbed “Peach,” is an open movie project that is using a Network.com-powered application called Blender to perform the video rendering for an animated short movie. “Peach” is expected to be completed and ready for its premiere some time this spring. It takes 1-2 hours to render a single movie frame on a 1-CPU box, and most animated movies contain hundreds of thousands of frames. Clearly, running these jobs on Sun’s grid will save the “Peach” team countless hours of computing time.

We’ll try to follow up with more details on the project itself in the weeks to come, but the real news, to me, is the possibility that Sun has finally hit upon a real sweet spot for the oft-maligned Network.com. Access to this scale of video rendering resources has previously been next to impossible if you weren’t affiliated with a major studio, so Sun has effectively given the unconnected creative community a way to get into the animation game. The combination of Blender and Network.com, said Herring, “expands that market segment to a group of people who never would have been able to touch it in the past.”

In fact, said Herring, Sun has seen a significant amount of CPU usage around Blender in the past several months — an amount he never would have guessed — adding that the application “seems to have struck a nerve in that community.” Speculating about what the “sons and daughters of Peach” might look like, Herring suggests apps like Blender running on Network.com might someday enable even internal corporate productions to take on a professional animation studio feel.

However, he is exercising restrained optimism when it comes to answering whether Sun has found its killer app for Network.com. Thus far, Peach has been a good proof-of-concept to you can make a cutting-edge animated movie without being part of a studio, but, acknowledged Herring, it has to cross the goal line to really suffice as solid proof. Additionally, he admitted, it’s too soon to tell whether the increased usage around video rendering is a long-term trend or an anomaly. Ultimately, he confessed, “I don’t know what will capture the hearts and minds of the public out there using this stuff.”

Obviously, Herring is correct not to jump to conclusions about the Blender application, and video rendering in general, being Network.com’s killer app and springboard to worldwide acceptance, but I have to believe it is, from an application standpoint, the most unique and most potentially game-changing offering in Network.com’s catalog. As Herring said, though, we’ll have to wait and see whether the independent animation market rallies around Blender like wannabe filmmakers have rallied around YouTube. For what it’s worth, if I were charged with finding Network.com’s killer app, I would focus on the software-as-a-service market, using Sun’s resources to power on-demand applications from ISVs (as it already is doing with Callidus, Infosolve and CDO2). The SaaS market is growing by leaps and bounds, and I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to see Network.com as the de facto platform for high-performance SaaS apps that run best in parallel.

Of course, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask Herring about recent statements by Sun’s IT department that it plans to close its datacenters and offload Sun’s internal operations to a utility model. Calling this type of vision commonplace among datacenter operators, Herring said: “You’re seeing the classic imperative for cloud computing: Our IT group wants to get out of having these huge … server farms and just run it on a utility. [They want to] get out of the cost-center basis and run it on a pay-per-use basis.” This plain has received a lot of flak since being announced in January, but if Sun is sold on its “red shift” theory, it has to practice what it preaches, right?

Adding an intriguing twist to this story is the possibility that Sun’s internal IT department would choose Network.com to power its operations. “From a Network.com side of the world, that headache [of managing a datacenter] becomes our value to the market,” said Herring, and the prospect does make some sense, as Network.com is run as a business, not as a cost center. To make this work, though, Herring’s team first needs to get on the IT department’s radar. Chuckling, Herring admitted that communication among various divisions of a company isn’t always as easy as one might expect, and an initial issue was just getting some attention on the Network.com possibility.

Terracotta Deals PartyPoker.com a Royal Flush

Speaking of interesting use cases, I also had a chance recently to speak with BD Goel, COO of PartyGaming, about his company’s use of Terracotta’s network-attached memory (NAM) solution to increase scale and speed data updates times for PartyGaming’s family of sites, which includes, among others, the very popular PartyPoker.com. Terracotta is best suited for storing “scratch data,” which the folks at Terracotta define as “object oriented data that is critical to the execution of a series of Java operations inside the JVM, but may not be critical once a business transaction is complete.”

Having to handle more than 100,000 users simultaneously, Goel said data sharing among server and scalability have always been issues for PartyGaming, whose systems are designed to have multiple gaming servers around the world talking to one another constantly, updating and consolidating data in real time. A PartyPoker player could start connected to any game server anywhere in the world, explained Goel, and the system needs to keep consolidating so people know what tables are open, how many people are there, etc. “The fundamental problem for us is the amount of data we need to share among our various servers and how quickly we can update it,” he said, adding that traditional solutions couldn’t handle PartyGaming’s needs in terms of, among other factors, low lag times.

Terracotta is currently handling data for hundreds of connected servers and is part of the core fabric and foundation of the PartyGaming system, where it helps make possible the real-time nature of the various sites. Goel, for example, points to PartyBets, a live betting service where people bet as an event or a game is going on — and where the ability to move data quickly from one point to another is critical. “If this takes four seconds to update and the event is over in three seconds,” said Goel, “it doesn’t compute for us.” PartyGaming also is planning to offer a new set of products that rely on the Terracotta foundation, without which, Goel says, “we probably would not be able to provide these services at the level we want to do.”

PartyGaming looked at several other technologies before deciding to go with Terracotta, which Goel said was the easiest to deploy in terms of not being too invasive of the current system, which took eights years to build and contains millions of lines of code. Infrastructure-wise, PartyGaming can’t afford to regress, and it can’t afford to have its services go down, as the losses incurred would be “humungous.” Therefore, in order to make sure everything was working properly before letting it handle “real money,” Terracotta was put through its paces in a staging environment before being moved onto a “play money” system, where it was asked to handle four times the load of the real system.

From a business perspective, it’s worth noting that while Terracotta’s NAM model might be a different way of handling transactional data than a traditional data caching solution, PartyGaming’s reasons for seeking out the technology are the same as those of most companies adopting cutting-edge technologies. Aside from handling ever-increasing amounts of data in shorter timeframes and allowing massive scalability, PartyGaming believes Terracotta will allow the company to focus on improving its products. “This is part of the core technology strategy of the company,” explained Goel, “where we are always looking for technologies where we can offload on commercial vendors and we can focus on the stuff which we know is going to be a competitive advantage.”

To this end, he said PartyGaming already has seen a return on its investment, as its best engineers are working on core business projects rather than the IT infrastructure, and the company doesn’t have to expend resources finding a platform for its next-generation applications. “It’s a lot more strategic than measuring whether it has saved me $100,000,” said Goel.

Wrapping Up

As for this week’s issue, we have many potentially important announcements across a variety of areas — from standards to virtualization management software to, of course, cloud computing. Be sure to check out: “Open Standards Advance with Open Grid Forum-Europe”; “Unisys Transforming Clients into Real-Time Enterprises”; “Sybase Brings Adaptive Server to Enterprise Clusters”; “FastScale Enhances Datacenter Automation Capabilities”; “Oracle Offers Private Hosting for Siebel CRM On Demand”; “Sun Releases xVM Ops Center”; and “EMC Advances Cloud Division w/ Pi Acquisition.”

—–

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

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