CTO FORUM - IBM's Wladawsky-Berger talks grids

In his keynote address on grid computing here at the InfoWorld CTO Forum this week, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy at Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, practiced what he preached by making a complex technology sound simple.

Grid computing is being embraced by IBM, Hewlett-Packard co., Compaq Computer Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and a handful of smaller vendors. The highly distributed computing model was first used in projects such as SETI, which accesses and aggregates unused compute cycles on desktops to analyze radio signals from space in the search for intelligent life. Thus, the concept of grid is to connect distributed computer systems and tap into their unused resources to complete a single task.

Wladawsky-Berger's talk focused on one theme: How grid computing helps users, corporate and otherwise, cope with the increasing complexity of computing. The continuing dramatic decrease in the cost of technology, for instance the cost of bandwidth, forces the Internet to try and absorb technology such as wireless and broadband, Wladawsky-Berger said.

"What was not affordable a few years ago is affordable now, but it is incredibly complex. And it doesn't help to say this stuff is cheap. Don't worry about it. That doesn't help the people who need to manage it," Wladawsky-Berger said.

To deal with this growth the next major step for the Internet will be to turn from networking as a communications platform to a computing platform and because it is a distributed platform it, in turn, becomes a computing grid.

Slowly and methodically, but not without a lively delivery style and a few well-placed quips, Wladawsky-Berger delivered his three ways in which the grid reduced complexity.

The first target was the lack of standards in the high-tech industry.

"When people agree on a standard, this is incredibly productive. Look what happened when everyone agreed on TCP/IP. Was it the best [protocol]? Who knows and who cares," he said. "The most progress will take place when you base the things you link together on open-source protocols that a community can agree on."

The grid community, Globus was given as an example, is specifying a set of protocols for security, system management, clustering services, connectivity management, and physical resource management.

"All these protocols will be represented as Web services," he added.

Wladawsky-Berger offered proof points of current uses of the Web to highlight that the use of standards is already happening.

The United Kingdom is linking all the major universities together. The NSA is building what is called the Tera Grid to link 39 super computers together that have 750TB of date and 70 teraflops of computing capacity.

"The grid removes complexity by promoting and creating standards, and we see this in the Open Grid Architecture that will integrate Web services and Globus standards," he said.

From there, the Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM vice president -- and the man many consider one of the more distinguished thinkers in the high tech-industry -- delivered his second point, telling the audience, made up mainly of CTOs in Fortune 1000 companies, that management of resources is another way the grid takes complexity out of computing.

"We have been incredibly remiss in building management into our systems. Look what happens when a virus attacks. It is amazing how little common sense we built into our system. A computer can be built to beat Kasparov [world chess champion], but if a truck comes at them they don't know how to get out of the way," he said.

According to Wladawsky-Berger, in order for simplification to occur the entire infrastructure has to be self-managed and the nodes of the infrastructure have to talk to each other so a manager will know if a job is getting done.

"There will be self-managed, self-configuring, self-optimizing, self-protecting, and self-healing systems," he added.

The third way the grid simplifies computing and its most widely recognized benefit is the way in which it reduces complexity for users and developers through the ability to access resources.

Wladawsky-Berger used a personal anecdote to make his point.

"Now I make pizza at home. It is time consuming. I make my own dough and if I feel like it my own sauce. But sometimes, it is too time consuming, so I go to Stew Leonards [a supermarket in Westchester County, N.Y.] and buy their dough. Or I might even buy their marinara sauce. Or I could buy the entire pizza. So I can go from kitchen cook to kitchen integrator," he explained.

The point Wladawsky-Berger was making is that that once protocols are agreed upon users will no longer have to care where the virtual service, like buying the entire pizza or its components, gets instantiated.

Wladawsky-Berger listed benefits that access to resources give users and developers, including new capabilities, adding capacity quickly, better performance, lower up-front investment, and expertise not available internally.

Finally, he wrapped up his keynote address with the observation that throughout its history, technology has taken the same path. It starts in the lab, then gets used by the early adopters, then public recognition, and finally there is mass adoption and the technology disappears from sight.

"The critical part of mass-adoption is to make things simple, like electricity, turning off and on the light switch. That is the next big challenge. Our next task is to hide the Internet in the woodwork. People log into a virtual service and don't care where it came from. The goal is to make it as boring as possible," he said.

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