Grid vendors launch interoperability effort

Several of the IT industry's biggest vendors have formed a group called the Enterprise Grid Alliance to promote grid computing in the enterprise. Their goal is to boost the adoption of grid computing by hammering out technology specifications that allow customers to mix and match products from a variety of suppliers.

Oracle Corp., EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Sun Microsystems Inc. are among the initial board members of the Enterprise Grid Alliance, the formation of which was announced Tuesday. Other participants include NEC Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Novell Corp. The alliance is open to any organization that wants to join, including customers, for a fee starting at US$5,000 per year, said Donald Deutsch, an Oracle vice president who is serving as president of the alliance.

One analyst applauded the effort, saying it could benefit large enterprises, which typically have a mix of hardware and software in their datacenters. But the magnitude of the task, and the fact that two of the industry's biggest players -- IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. -- are not yet on board, means the alliance has its work cut out, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software research at IDC.

The goal is to produce a set of specifications that will allow grid products from various vendors to interoperate, and to produce test suites that will help customers identify products that are interoperable. The alliance will also study new methods of paying for hardware and software, since traditional pricing methods are hard to apply in a grid environment, Deutsch said.

Grid computing involves linking groups of computers and storage devices together in a way that lets enterprises allocate those resources dynamically as they are needed. For example, when demand for a payroll application surges at the end of the month, enterprises should be able to shift the workload from that application onto additional servers, and move it off again when the peak load has passed.

Most of the big vendors have been promoting the grid model, promising to help customers reduce IT costs by using resources more efficiently. But their products don't always interoperate, causing headaches for customers who use, for example, Oracle's database software, HP's management software and EMC's storage gear.

The work of the alliance could prove useful for customers, but it won't be easy for a large group of vendors to agree on common standards, IDC's Kusnetzky said. What's more, the alliance eventually will need to get IBM and Microsoft on board if it hopes to succeed, because of their broad reach, he said.

IBM is still deciding whether to join, an IBM spokesman said Monday, declining further comment. Microsoft was also approached, according to Deutsch, but is also undecided. The software giant declined to comment for this article.

Any specifications produced by the alliance will be released on an open, royalty-free basis, Deutsch said. The alliance offers various levels of membership, ranging from $50,000 for "sponsors" who hold seats on the board, to $5,000 for "associates" who attend working group meetings but cannot vote. "You have to pay to play," Deutsch said.

Oracle first proposed a commercial grid consortium in September, and the Enterprise Grid Alliance is the fruit of those efforts. In proposing the idea, Oracle raised the hackles of groups already working on grid standards, most notably the Global Grid Forum. "There was some angst initially, but we've tried to assure (the other groups) that we will work with them," Deutsch said.

The Global Grid Forum has a broader focus that includes academic and scientific computing, while the Enterprise Grid Alliance is focussed squarely on the datacenter, Deutsch said. "We are not interested in collecting unused CPU (central processing unit) cycles from widely distributed systems, or in academic and research computing," he said.

In fact, the alliance will work with existing standards groups and adopt their specifications where possible, Deutsch said. A representative from the Global Grid Forum said Monday it supports the work of the Enterprise Grid Alliance so long as it makes a genuine effort to use existing standards.

The alliance is in the process of setting up five working groups and hopes to see deliverables from them in about six months, Deutsch said. They are working on areas such as a common API (application programming interface) for provisioning systems in a grid environment; a common security mechanism; and a new model for billing customers using grid computing. "Now that you have these flexible, scalable, redeployable resources, how do you charge back for that kind of computing?" Deutsch said.

Supporting heterogeneous environments isn't the end goal of all the group's members. For example, Oracle has been encouraging its customers to stick to its 10g family of products to achieve the best results, and it is not changing that position.

"Many of our customers have existing investments in, for example, directories and backup software. So to make their transition to a complete Oracle infrastructure easier and less expensive, we are very enthusiastic about open grid standards," said Bob Shimp, Oracle's vice president of technology marketing.

IDC's Kusnetzky said he's hopeful the alliance will succeed, but noted that similar efforts in the past haven't always been successful. Unix vendors tried half a dozen times to unite under a single banner, for example, but they never succeeded, he said.

"Things could work out perfectly, or things might not work out at all and the organization quietly goes away after a year. We'll have to wait and see," he said.

The alliance planned to launch a Web site with more information Tuesday, at www.gridalliance.org.

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