Analysis: Grid Computing

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Back in the 1960s, when computers were rare and expensive, CPU time was scheduled and billed by the millisecond. Now, CPU time is cheap, so much so that computers these days spend most of their time displaying your vacation photos of Yosemite or simulating an aquarium. These simple “screen saver” programs, which compute nothing and whose only purpose is to stir up pixels on the display screen, probably consume more of the world’s computational capacity than any other kind of software. Go into almost any office and you’ll find machines busily saving their screens all night and all weekend.

But even when a computer is in use, it’s mostly idle and operating way below peak powers. The average office worker might produce 10 keystrokes a second; that’s not much of a distraction for a processor that can execute 100 million instructions in that same blink of an eye.

A lot of companies might have a great need for some of that unused computing power—and not just that being squandered by the PCs in your office. Imagine if all the PCs in Manhattan, for example—or the U.K., for that matter—could be focused on solving your company’s latest global problem or on discovering a new source of oil or a new drug to cure arthritis.

GlaxoSmithKline PLC is already thinking in such terms. Like every pharmaceutical company, GSK faces a high-pressure challenge: To discover—fast—the few molecular compounds that can be used to make new drugs. To do that, tens of thousands of compounds must be screened, mixed and matched in order to find the few dozen suitable for development. That’s no easy challenge: Drug development is a marathon that lasts years, so if makers can cut even one week from the time it takes to get a new drug to market, it can save millions of dollars. If GSK could boost computing power enough to significantly hasten the drug discovery process, it could beat more rivals in the race to market new drugs. “Ninety percent of drug candidates fail to make it to market,” says GSK grid strategist Joseph Simpkins. “So it is important to fail quickly.”

Simpkins, therefore, is always on the prowl for more computing power. In the past, GSK ran its custom code—the algorithms that determine if a single compound has drug potential—on several dedicated UNIX workstations, and it could take weeks, if not months, to get results. Three years ago, Simpkins redoubled his efforts to find a faster solution. His first instinct was to buy a multimillion-dollar supercomputer, but that would have been too expensive. Simpkins also toyed with customizing computer chips to run the code faster—but that would have required reprogramming the supercomputer or creating new custom chips each time a new algorithm was developed. Both options were too costly and inflexible.

Then Simpkins had a hunch. Like most companies, he figured, GSK didn’t use all the computing cycles on its desktop PCs. To prove his theory, he surveyed a sample of the several hundred PCs in the research division and was astounded by the results. “The unused computing cycles were close to 95 percent at any time of day.” Simpkins had found his solution—computing power available right under his nose. GSK scientists now tap unused power over the corporate intranet from GSK’s 600 desktop PCs in Britain, Italy and Research Triangle Park, N.C. At peak times, GSK’s in-house grid uses 95 percent of the company’s total PC capacity. “Our vision is to harness all available desktop power in the company,” says Simpkins. “This has opened up a whole new way of thinking, and the scientists started to come up with new ways of doing their research that they hadn’t thought of before.”

GSK isn’t alone in contemplating the possibilities. Other companies, from The Boeing Co. and Ericsson Inc. to Unilever PLC, are also experimenting with in-house grids, and the payoffs on collaboration and data-sharing can be significant. At Boeing, a home-styled grid—which includes several large supercomputers and many desktop machines at eight separate Boeing sites—recently helped engineers solve a design problem in seven days, mustering 96,000 hours of computing cycles during that period. “This computation would not have been attempted before, as it would have taken about seven years to do on a contemporary high-performance workstation,” says Kenneth Neves, director of research and development planning and collaboration for Boeing.

Today, GSK’s three-year-old grid project has started to see a payoff. It has already negated the need to spend $4.8 million on 300 dedicated UNIX servers that would have been needed to achieve higher-speed new-drug screening. And GSK grid specialist Simpkins says grid computing can cut the time it takes to analyze a single compound from eight weeks to as few as two, cutting R&D costs—which for GSK, Wall Street analysts estimate, amounted to some $10 million a day last year—at the same time. But to Simpkins, the most important payoff is the competitive advantage GSK will get from being faster at analyzing thousands more compounds. “The potential return on investment is mind-boggling,” says Simpkins. GSK CIO Ford Calhoun is similarly optimistic, and recently set up a grid task force of IT and R&D staff to cull a list of specific business projects that could benefit from a surge in computer power.

But these in-house, client-centric experiments in distributed computing could soon be rendered child’s play. In recent months, a number of companies have begun the early spadework needed to build a nationwide computing grid that would, some scientists envision, be analogous to today’s electricity grid, putting one company’s—or hundreds of companies’—computing power, distributed via the Net, into the hands of other companies that need it for everything from drug research to collaborative automotive design to high-speed consumer data analysis. Often called the next step in the evolution of the Internet, business grid computing will allow users to share computing power, data and applications as easily as information is exchanged today over the Web. Grids create vast pools of computing power by connecting computers from disparate locations using the Internet or high-speed networks as well as open-source protocols (see Grid Computing chart). While the Net allows users everywhere to share information, the grid will allow users to share raw computing power anywhere, anytime. “Today, the Internet is used for e-mail and instant messaging and content discovery and delivery. Grid computing will allow the Net to be used as a supercomputer-for-hire,” says David Turek, IBM Corp.’s vice president for emerging technologies.

A whole new industry is already springing up around grids. In August, IBM put its full weight behind Globus, an international consortium founded in 1996 that is developing an array of open-source software that will enable companies to securely get their systems onto an open, cross-company, cross-industry grid. Since then, dozens more companies, including Sun Microsystems Inc. and Japan’s NEC, have come forward to help develop the new grid.

IBM’s support of efforts to develop grid computing on open-source software has been an important catalyst for the commercial development of the technology. Turek says IBM is in discussions with companies in five sectors—financial services, automotive, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and energy—to help them either build or run grids aimed at boosting their ability to collaborate in-house across geographical boundaries, get products to market faster and crunch numbers quicker on complex problems. In November, IBM announced plans to help build the grid technology to support a consortium of more than 60 life-sciences companies and research organizations. Grid computing is “gaining critical mass” among those in the business community, says grid expert Ian Foster, head of Globus, chief of the distributed computing systems laboratory at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago and a computer science professor at the University of Chicago.

IBM’s Turek says the commercial opportunities are promising. Some companies, he says, might see a chance to create markets for CPU cycles or data cycles. Others, like IBM, might build businesses around offering companies a way to build their own grids that, using open-source software, would offer access to a common, utility-based grid. Still others predict that new companies will be created to Web-host the new global computing grid in the same way that utilities now exist to provide electricity to homeowners and businesses. “When you plug your appliance into the wall, you don’t know who’s supplying you with electricity that day. There may be a lot of generators, but all you know is that you get a bill from your power company for what you use. You don’t really care which generating facility produced the electrons you’re making use of that precise second, but you don’t have to. What you care about is that when you hit the switch, you get the power.”

In all, Turek predicts the fledgling new grid computing industry could grow to be worth billions. “It’s not going to be limited to just millions of dollars of opportunity. We believe this will grow to billions of dollars, not just for us but for the industry at large,” he says.

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