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TECH TALK: Disruptive Technologies: The Tech Utility

August 31st, 2001 · No Comments

Why should computing cost so much more than electricity? Can we pay for computer hardware and software like we pay for electricity – on a usage basis? Why do we have to buy all these expensive hardware and software bundles when we use a small fraction of their power? Is there an alternative? What is it that can disrupt the existing computing model?

The answer lies in thinking of computing technology as a utility. The starting point is the Grid. Writes the Economist (June 21, 2001):

Imagine that every time you plugged in a toaster, you had to decide which power station should supply the electricity. Worse still, you could select only from those power stations that were built by the company that made the toaster. If the power station chosen happened to be running at full capacity, no toast. Replace the toaster with a personal computer and electrical power with processing power, and this gives a measure of the frustration facing those who dream of distributing large computing problems to dozens, hundreds or even millions of computers via the Internet.

A growing band of computer engineers and scientists want to take the toaster analogy to its logical conclusion with a proposal they call the Grid. Although much of it is still theoretical, the Grid is, in effect, a set of software tools which, when combined with clever hardware, would let users tap processing power off the Internet as easily as electrical power can be drawn from the electricity grid.

Think of the grid as a virtual computer, which you can tap into to get exactly the resources you need. One of the developments making this possible is the amazing growth in bandwidth in the past few years due to fibre optics. The distinction between the desktop and the network is going to become less dramatic in the years to come. All that we need is some processing power and a display on the desktop (or the palmtop), with the network functioning as the computer, thanks to the telecosm which provides the high-speed bandwidth (through optics and wireless).

IBM recently announced a multi-billion dollar commitment to facilitate the creation of the grid. IBM sees the global grid as “critical next step in the evolution of the internet”. Comments Gartner:

The [Grid] technology could tie together the servers of a server farm into one big pool of computing power to which an outsourcer could sell access. Customers would not have to buy a fixed amount of computing power, which might be more or less than they need at any particular moment. Instead, they would always have access to as much power as they need and would be charged only for what they actually use.

The technology will appeal to businesses that face increasing pressure to maximize their return on IT investments. Businesses will eventually buy their IT infrastructure and applications from vendors that will act as “IT utilities.”

We are already seeing one of the key pieces emerging in the development of the grid: the blade server.

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