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Sun's grid: lights on, no customers

14 months of utility computing vision

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Many of you will remember the fanfare and bravado surrounding Sun Microsystems' Sep. 2004 announcement of a $1 per hour per processor utility computing plan. What you won't remember is Sun revealing a single customer using the service. That's because it hasn't.

The missing customers prove quite shocking when you consider that utility computing users must agree to be named in marketing programs as part of their contract with Sun - a fact learned by The Register and confirmed by a Sun spokeswoman. More than one year since it first started hyping the "pay-for-use grid computing services" Sun is still weeks away from presenting a customer to the public. The program has proved much tougher to sell that Sun ever imagined.

"It has been harder than we anticipated," said Aisling MacRunnels, Sun's senior director of utility computing in an interview. "It has been really hard. All of this has been a massive learning experience for us a company. I am not embarrassed to say this because we have been on the leading edge."

The "leading edge" serves as a bit of an understatement in many respects. Sun got way too ahead of itself with the $1 per CPU hour and $1 per gigabyte of storage plans.

For example, in September of last year Sun said, "Sun today expanded its vision of 'The Network is the Computer' and took its N1 Grid program to a new level by delivering a first-of-its-kind capability for customers to access grids of secure computing power as easily as buying utility services such as phone, power or water. Using a pay-for-use pricing model starting at $1/CPU, per hour, grid cycles can be purchased in packs of hours through Sun."

In fact, however, Sun is still in beta with this CPU program and not set to launch a publicly available utility computing system for weeks. And on the storage front, Sun has been forced to have a major rethink of plans, as it has seen much less interest in the program than expected. "The storage thing is definitely behind where we are with the computing," MacRunnels said.

The reason you haven't heard about any Sun utility customers is because most of them have avoided the company's publicity requirement by avoiding the original product. A number of companies in the financial services and oil and gas sectors have purchased large quantities of Opteron CPUs from Sun, MacRunnels said. These customers negotiate their own price for the processors, tend to use the chips all the time instead of popping on and off the grid and refuse to reveal their names to the public. Sun has started to call these "commercial" utility computing customers.

The company assures us that some of these commercial customers do pay for these utility computing services. They use huge blocks of processors to crank through models such as Monte Carlo simulations. Sun won't name any of the customers or say how many it has other than to declare "the figure is in the tens" of customers.

The same cannot be said for the wide open, free-wheeling computing and storage utility Sun envisioned for a broader base of customers. Despite requirements that these folks talk to the press, not a single one has appeared in a Sun press release. It seems hard to believe that Sun would pass on the opportunity to dangle such a user in front of the press if it existed given that we're 14 months away from the utility computing launch date.

Sun just started the beta of this program a few weeks ago, which is shocking given the amount of press the program has received all year. You would have thought this thing was a smashing success. The Register is no more innocent than the rest of the news hounds in promoting Sun's ambitious but vacuous plan.

One day, customers will be able to pay for processors and storage simply by entering credit card information into a Sun web site. The company promises us such a day is coming sooner than later and that it will have plenty of customers to name in the near future. Still, given that it took a year to push the program to a beta, one wonders how long an actual living, breathing utility center will take.

"We found it easier to write about it and document it than it was to achieve," MacRunnels said.

So did we. ®

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