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The continuing march of grid computing recently received a nudge forward when a consortium of big name IT companies formed a group specifically to promote the use of grids in the business world.

IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Intel have thrown their collective weight behind the Globus Consortium, a non-profit organization aimed at turning more businesses onto grid computing – giving companies in the auto, aerospace, and energy industries the open source tools to develop their own grid systems, and educating them about how to best use those systems.

Launched in January, the organization’s main goal is to make grid computing more accessible to corporate technology users. However, its roots stretch back several years to one open source project.

Originally released in 1997, the Globus Toolkit is a set of software applications that can be tweaked by users, which allows businesses to tailor the applications to fit their exact needs. Based on Unix, the toolkit offers a set of components that can manage security, information infrastructure, resource management, and communication across a (typically heterogeneous) grid. 

The toolkit, funded by the Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was borne out of work from Steve Tuecke, Ian Foster and their colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory.

However, the software sparked more initial interest with niche groups looking to solve big problems. Over the years, grid computing has found more of a following – and received more media attention – for the flashier academic projects like SETI@Home and the Human Proteome Folding Project that reached out to average computer users to lend their unused computing power to trying to contact aliens or decode proteins. While this is one forum for grid computing, Tuecke says that “cycle scavenging” projects like these only represent the most simplistic view of grid computing. 

Now, though, more traditional sectors have started to adopt the process. Financial service and pharmaceutical companies have already embraced grid computing – sometimes at a basic level, borrowing computing power from under-used desktops at their companies and other times on a more complex basis such as running applications run in a loosely coupled environment. 

These companies use grids to run the computationally intense “Monte Carlo simulations” – a type of probability analysis based on statistical sampling – necessary to analyze portfolio holdings or derivatives risks or to look at the countless permutations of molecules that might be combined to create new drugs. 

But other business sectors have been slower to join the computer-sharing smorgasbord, reportedly concerned about the potential security risks of working in such a diverse and decentralized environment, and the relative lack of resource monitoring and management software and services that have only recently started to become available.

The consortium hopes to win over those holdouts, promoting the products and services of its own members and also offering its own free open source toolkit to aid in development efforts.

Given support as well as better hardware and applications from the likes of Sun and IBM, Tuecke and Nawrocki both believe security- and sophistication-conscious businesses will become more open to grid computing as a more efficient means to solve business problems without investing in more expensive supercomputers.

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