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God smiles on Sun and delivers grid computing miracle

Let there be CPUs

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At long last, Sun Microsystems will fire up its retail grid computing service and give any US customer access to a supercomputer class system.

Casual Sun observers will be scratching their heads right about now, believing that Sun had already announced such a service a long time ago. That's correct.

Sun first "launched" its $1 per CPU hour plan in September 2004. At that time, Sun promised a number of massive server farms packed with thousands of Opteron and UltraSPARC processors that would be available to anyone would wanted them. Sun, however, got a bit ahead of itself with all that talk.

As we pointed out last Oct., Sun has managed to attract large customers to its server farms. But these folks don't use the $1 per CPU hour utility model championed by Sun. They prefer to buy fixed space on the Sun clusters and use the horsepower to crunch through demanding jobs. No one would claim that this type of contemporary time-sharing was a terribly innovative breakthrough.

The juicer part of Sun's plans revolved around the idea that any company could pop onto a web site, enter a credit card number and then access as many CPUs as they needed.

Sun has spent the last 18 months trying to make this happen. First, it battled the basic logistics behind creating a massive publicly accessible cluster, then it battled the government. Regulators didn't care for the idea that rogue nations could log on to the Sun cluster and design nuclear weapons or run dirty bomb simulations in their spare time.

It seems unlikely that an Axis of Evil member would want to leave such an obvious trail of their activities, including their Visa account, in the hands of Sun and its three-letter friends. But, hey, everyone likes frequent flier miles.

Sun has managed to assuage the government's fears by making the initial Sun grid a US thang only.

"We engaged with the folks who monitor technology export control for the US Government (if there's a harder civil service job in the government, I'd like to know it) - who helped us ensure the grid wouldn't be accessible to people with nefarious intent," wrote Sun Prez Jonathan Schwartz on his glob. "They understood we wanted to make this as simple as applying for an eBay account - we'll be close, but we've got to have a higher level of scrutiny (which is why, when you apply for an account, it'll take a few hours, and won't be instantaenous - but that's our goal)."

Sun does plan to open the grid up to international customers one day.

The grid that US customers find will be less ambitious than the one originally promised by Sun. Instead of myriad centers with 5,000 dual-core CPUs each, Sun will open one center with "less than" 5,000 dual-core CPUs.

Schwartz said that the grid will officially open "in a few days." It will reside at the fancy network.com url. That's easy enough to remember. Sun also owns www.thenetworkisthecomputer.com but, er, hasn't put anything up on the site.

Overall, Sun should get some credit for sticking this thing out.

There's something rather egalitarian about the whole idea. Plenty of businesses have large jobs that could benefit from a huge clusters of systems, but they're not about to spend millions and millions on the servers, cooling, and admins needed to run such a beast for one or two specific workloads. Now, they can send these occasional jobs off to Sun. It's a bit like supercomputing for the masses.

In addition, this whole use your credit card for CPUs does bring the entire industry closer to a real utility computing vision.

That said, we wonder how well this plays out in the long run. We're estimating that Sun could pull in about $44m in revenue per year for every 5,000 CPU cluster, or twice that if Sun settles on a per core model. (Someone please check our math on that). And that's with every CPU humming 24 hours a day. Sun would have to run a heck of a lot of these centers to generate meaningful revenue.

So, let's see what happens. ®

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