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A few years ago, I had a series of meetings with CIOs and CTOs in New York City. I asked them all the same question: “Do you feel the grid you’re building is delivering a competitive advantage to your business?” (When we talk about a computer grid, we ordinarily mean a private collection of low-cost network, storage, computing, and software elements, lashed together to do complicated computing work that historically required multimillion-dollar data centers.)

I asked the same question of researchers and executives in the energy industry, which is using grids to find oil; the life sciences, where grids help in drug discovery; the motion picture industry, where grids are used to render complex effects and animation; and academia, where grids are supporting all sorts of innovative science.

The answer was always the same: “Absolutely, yes. Our grid is way better than any of our competitors’.” The only problem: computing is evolving in a completely different direction.

As strange as it may sound, consumers are way ahead of most enterprises and academic institutions when it comes to using public grids (and paying for them). Most of us now live on the public grid at home. We don’t need a supercomputer in the garage; we use the Internet to access Google and Yahoo, we love eBay, we bank from home, we upload and share photos on Flickr and movies on YouTube, and we gather our news from various sources across the Web.

Yet most major research institutions and corporations are still reluctant to leverage “utility computing” – computing power provided on demand over the open Internet. To me, that’s like living without electricity.

But there are signs that change is afoot. A good friend of mine, a bio-informatician, described how frustrated he was at having to wait while his university’s private supercomputing facility worked through its queue of pending jobs to get to his. “If you had a grid available online, I’d bring my whole budget to you,” he said. Granted, his budget was only about $10,000 per quarter, but I assure you there’s a good business in serving the “long tail” – the multi-tude of users with narrow interests and needs that, in aggregate, are the majority.

I believe that in the not-so-distant future, most computing power available over the Internet will be purchased by that tail. There are, after all, far more small businesses than large ones. I’m very comfortable betting on the value in volume – and the willingness of those smaller firms to change culture, process, and lifestyle to get a competitive advantage through network services.

The simplicity, accessibility, and affordability of a true Internet utility computing service will change the face of computing for all organizations, large and small, public and private. And they won’t have to house the grid, manage it, power it, provision it…or buy it.

Jonathan Schwartz was named chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems in April.

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Tagged: Computing, Energy

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