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Tue Feb 19, 2:59 PM ET
By STEVE LOHR The New York Times
A worldwide computing project known as grid, whose long-term vision is to bring the power of supercomputing to individuals, is taking a step out of the laboratory and into the commercial mainstream.
Web services promise a new level of computerized automation and convenience to companies and consumers over the Internet, all made possible by special software. A Web service application might, for example, enable a company's inventory database to talk to a supplier's for automatic reordering. Another application might allow an individual's personal calendar to communicate with the appointment database of a doctor to automatically schedule a checkup.
The grid technology has grown up over the last few years mainly in government supercomputer centers and university laboratories. The notion of computing power as an electricity-like utility, available anytime and anywhere, has long been pursued. The grid, which takes its name from the utility analogy, is a computing concept that first surfaced in the 1950's. And computer time-sharing fashionable both intellectually and on Wall Street in the 1960's was an earlier incarnation of the distributed computing vision that the grid's advocates are chasing.
Yet continuing advances in processing power, network capacity and software, the grid scientists say, have finally brought the long-sought ideal of distributed computing within reach. A comparatively simple, but well-known distributed computing application is the SETI@home program, begun in 1999, which harnesses the power of millions of personal computers to seek signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
The grid researchers in the labs have used their technology to enable far-flung groups of scientists to collaborate on complex projects that require lots of computing firepower including climate modeling, high-energy physics, genetic research and earthquake simulations.
The software that has allowed the sharing of computing resources and information in scientific grid programs is called Globus, a software development project that uses the open-source model, in which programmers from around the world freely share ideas, code and bug fixes.
Still, the grid technology has been tailored to only specialized scientific applications so far. The paper, presented at the Global Grid Forum in Toronto, laid out a technical framework for taking the grid technology squarely into the more commercial world of Web services. These Web services are based on a series of industry-standard protocols XML, SOAP, WDSL and UDDI for describing, identifying and communicating data over the Web.
The paper's title was "The Physiology of the Grid: An Open Grid Services Architecture for Distributed Systems Integration." It defined, in the language of Web services, how to build Web service applications that can flourish in the distributed computing environment of the grid.
Draft versions of the paper have been on the Web for weeks, seeking comments from the academic and corporate research communities. The Globus project led by Ian Foster, a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, and Carl Kesselman, director of the center for grid technologies at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute has welcomed and encouraged the research contribution and financial support of computer companies.
An I.B.M. researcher, Jeffrey M. Nick, was one of four authors of the grid paper, along with Mr. Foster, Mr. Kesselman and Steven Tuecke, a scientist at the Argonne lab.
I.B.M. and Microsoft, along with three specialist companies, Platform Computing, Entropia and Avaki, are expected to announce their support for the grid architecture to integrate Web services. Other companies are expected to follow their lead.
"The emerging commercial support is going to accelerate the process of moving grid technologies out of the lab and into the mainstream," said Mr. Foster of the Argonne lab.
The long-range goal, Mr. Foster explained, is "to transform the use of computing by putting in place concepts, infrastructure, and tools that can enable resource sharing on a large scale."
The established companies are supporting the Globus software project for different business reasons. I.B.M., for example, has embraced the major open-source efforts like the Linux operating system, in part to undermine rivals with strong operating system businesses, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.
For Microsoft, the business motivation is more complicated. Globus is an open-source project, whose software in research labs often runs on computers using Linux, a competitor to Microsoft's Windows. But Microsoft sees its future as increasingly dependent on the rise of Web services, whose communications protocols allow the software of many vendors to share data and interoperate.
So, Microsoft executives say, they see the grid as creating a larger software "ecosystem" or market, in business terms in which Microsoft offerings can thrive.
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