iSeries: Getting on the Computing Grid

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On April 23, 2002, Bill Zeitler (Senior Vice President and Group Executive, Server Group) revealed that IBM will move forward to ensure that iSeries 400 will be fully capable of participating in the rapidly evolving world of grid computing.

On that same day, IBM opened a Grid Innovation Center in France to give European customers access to a grid to explore the next generation of grid solutions. The center, housed at IBM's Advanced Technical Solution Center in Montpellier, will provide commercial customers with the opportunity to explore the emerging area of grid computing by allowing them access to a grid to run prototype grid projects. This center will use the latest grid technologies, including the Globus-IBM Open Grid Services Architecture (OGSA), which merges grid computing open protocols with Web services protocols.

Two days later, on April 25, at the ninth annual Internet World conference in Los Angeles, Jocelyn Attal, Vice President of Marketing for IBM WebSphere stated that IBM would go public by August of this year with its grid-enabled services that will integrate Web services into the burgeoning grid computing architecture.

But what is grid computing? Isn't grid computing just for supercomputers? How might its benefits impact businesses, and how is it likely to be implemented on the iSeries? Is grid to be at the vanguard of making new technologies break through to the commercial world? Or is it one more technology bubble that is more hyperbole than substance?

What Is Grid Computing?

A computing grid is a secure network of computing services that share processing power, databases, and network services as a transparent entity to subscribers. In former times, such networks might have been called "timeshare" networks, and researchers and scientists often used "timesharing" to contract the processing power of super computers at remote facilities. But in tomorrow's environment, grid computing will offer the user the ability to access data that might exist somewhere in some database on the network and to process that data on a different computer elsewhere on the virtual grid, sending the results back in a form that is consumable by the user's node. This virtual processing within the grid could enable a business to tremendously leverage its own computing resources without investing in the expense of increased hardware processing capacity.

Changing Businesses' Virtual Worlds

For most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with centralized or decentralized iSeries and AS/400 computers, the concept of a computing grid by which the company's work can be accomplished may seem as foreign and obscure as a mission to Mars. After all, the IT life of most of these organizations is pretty much wrapped up in the daily fulfillment of internal company requirements: production, inventory control, order processing, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and general ledger. Accessing an external computing network to facilitate the company's business goals doesn't seem, on the face of it, to be very practical.

Yet, just as email and the World Wide Web have transformed the way in which we view IT, so too grid computing is expected to provide our companies with new opportunities for expanding the business model to obtain new orders, new processes, and new productivity. In fact, grid computing is seen by many as the next logical extension of the Internet and B2B e-commerce.

Consider, for example, how Supply Chain Management (SCM) systems and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are currently reshaping the role of mid-market IT shops: On the one hand, larger manufacturing concerns are already placing pressure on smaller suppliers to connect into their SCM systems to streamline order processing and inventory transfer between business entities. On the other hand, larger retailers are seeing increased demands from customers to provide transparent customer services through Internet connections. Most organizations that use the iSeries or AS/400 platforms find themselves in the middle--providing goods and services to larger entities or delivering customer services to smaller retail outlets. The current demands being exerted on IT to interface the organization's IT services to these entities is what is driving the B2B movement of e-business today.

Now consider that Gartner Group is predicting that the next decade will see businesses transform completely by using grid-enabled Web services to integrate across the Internet, not just sharing applications but sharing computer power. Analysts are also anticipating an eightfold increase in Internet traffic over the next 10 years. Such an increase will deliver incredible workloads onto the fragile networks that are only now being developed.

This demand will be driven by the use of wireless devices such as PCs, PDAs, Internet phones, and other pervasive computing devices. Without a grid infrastructure of secure services--backed by self-configuring, self-healing, scalable servers and network switches that serve computing cycles and channel computing bandwidth--such a demand will overwhelm the abilities of any individual company to participate or to sustain an appropriate level of transactions.

Add to this workload mixture the growing demands of collaborative computing--computing that transforms the workplace into a virtual office environment--and you have potential for real network meltdown. Thus, the ability of an iSeries 400 to participate in and contribute to a grid infrastructure becomes a requirement--not only for IBM, but for the businesses and organizations that currently use that server technology.

Why Is IBM Investing in Grid Computing Now?

As a result of IBM's analysis of computing trends, grid computing is seen as the next big technological hurdle that must be jumped to expand the power of e-business in commercial enterprises. Issues that must be addressed include not only hardware engineering, but also software protocols, operating system standards, and bandwidth considerations.

How difficult will such an initiative be? Consider the experience that IBM had in helping the development of electronic data interchange (EDI) standards in the 1980s: business demanded that an electronic protocol be developed by which companies could transmit and receive data between business entities. Proprietary communication protocols such as SDLC were evolved and supplanted over time by TCP/IP. Proprietary transaction processes, such as CICS, were invented, evolved, and deployed--later to be re-evolved, re-deployed, and ultimately supplanted. One result of that experience is that today there is not one EDI standard, but literally hundreds, each a product of a unique industry effort, modified and enhanced by thousands of entities within the computing industry.

Today, XML is following a similar evolution within various industries: each "standard" is really an industry-localized convention, put in place by the largest players without much concern for cross-industry overlap. Though the XML protocol is a "standard" protocol supported by numerous industries, the form and content contained within a particular XML standard is dictated by the largest players within each vertical industry.

Now imagine the similar kinds of issues inherent in establishing a virtual infrastructural grid of computing services: services that are redundant, transparent, powerful, persistent, and easy to use. The number of potential variables is enormous. Yet there are three basic industrywide movements that IBM has embraced within its server positioning that make IBM a natural player in this burgeoning technological niche: increased communications bandwidth; open communication standards; and open, scalable server architectures.

Bandwidth, Comm Standards, and Scalable Servers Open the Grid Potential

The single greatest inhibitor of grid computing in the past has been the lack of communications bandwidth; network inefficiencies bottlenecked transmission of large quantities of data and prohibited access to powerful remote servers. Now, however, networks are experiencing a tremendous increase in their capacity to handle the volume of information that grid computing demands. Likewise, over the next 10 years, this bandwidth is estimated to grow exponentially across all networks, opening the doors by which users of grid computing can access both data and computing horsepower easily without expensive infrastructural investments by companies.

The second prerequisite for an explosion in grid computing is the continued evolution of the TCP/IP communication standard, by which machines can communicate across a public network. Of course, TCP/IP is still evolving, and of particular importance will be the continued development of more-robust security processes to protect packets of information and commands as they are transmitted back and forth across the Internet.

Finally, the development of open, scalable server architectures--running open-source versions of the Linux operating system--is the crucial piece of the overall puzzle. Why? The concept of a computing grid holds the promise of sharing computing horsepower as well as sharing scalable databases. Without a common set of operating system interfaces, the task of tieing computing processes between machines operating on the grid becomes difficult. With a common, open-source architecture, accessing the processing power of computing devices across the grid can become increasingly transparent to the applications that are running on the grid.

On top of these technological advances, IBM and others are developing an OGSA that will tie these services together into a seamless global capability that IBM expects will transform how we view computing in the future.

How Important Will Grid Computing Be to iSeries Customers?

Ten years ago, no one adequately predicted how a global service like the Internet would impact the commerce potential of businesses that were running midrange servers. Today, the impact of a global network of grid computing is also difficult to predict. These days most iSeries customers are still responding to the evolving requirements of e-business--implementing SCM and CRM applications that extend the reach of the organization into the vital networks of suppliers and customers, and building infrastructures to handle the traffic of wireless computing devices.

What is important today in IBM's global grid computing vision for iSeries customers is its commitment to include the iSeries platform in this revolutionary initiative. Though it's still too early to predict how that potential will be realized in the iSeries, it's safe to say that this will not be a scenario from a science fiction thriller. Instead, we can expect IBM to provide us with a means by which we may be continually propelled along the path of e-business success.

More Information on Grid Computing

The white paper "The Physiology of the Grid: An Open Grid Services Architecture for Distributed Systems Integration" by Ian Foster, Carl Kesselman, Jeffrey M. Nick, and Steven Tuecke is available at http://www.globus.org/research/papers/ogsa.pdf.

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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