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Sun's dim grid a developer thang now

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Three years into its grand supercomputer rental experiment, Sun Microsystems has found that developers, developers, developers have more interest in the program than big spending businesses.

Sun indicated as much two weeks ago by announcing so-called “click and run” support for its Network.com service. Customers can select applications such as BLAST, FreeMAT and Impact and fire up the software across a desired number of Sun hosted processors. Ideally, this provides developers with a cost-effective way of testing their code across a large number of machines at a low cost.

Sun first talked up this grid computing service back in late 2004, touting it as the answer for large companies in need of extra horsepower. Got some oil exploration problems that just won't fit on your in-house servers? No problem. Fork over $1 per CPU per hour and crank away on Sun's hardware.

Buoyed by its own optimism, Sun bragged about creating six data centers to host the grid-based applications, setting up shop in the US, Canada and Europe.

Now we find Sun using just a couple of data centers and paying more attention to the developer set than cycle hungry types on Wall Street or in Texas (replace Texas with Hollywood, if you're Californian). (The company refuses to divulge how many grid data centers it has now but did confirm that it has centers in the US and Canada, so we know it's at least two.) And where Sun once celebrated the grid idea at every turn, the company has made a conscious effort to scale back the grid chatter, fearing public ridicule.

The humbled Sun's focus on software developers makes sense and might prove lucrative in the long run.

In the coming weeks, Sun plans to dish out High Performance Computing (C++) and Java grid modules for NetBeans that should make it easier for coders to write software for the grid, said Sun's software chief Rich Green.

Sun last week experienced its first ever grid backlog with some jobs needing to wait about five minutes to hop on the processor train. “We're hustling as fast as we can to get more gear on the grid,” Green said.

The company has seen “hundreds” more subscribers sign up for the grid service week-over-week and is on a double-digit growth curve. Most of this interest has come from the developer crowd Sun so wants to attract.

Overall, the grid plan remains perplexing. Even if Sun managed to sell 500 million hours of CPU time – a minor miracle – the Network.com profits would barely be noticed on its balance sheet.

Insiders, however, claim that Network.com is all about the relationship not the revenue. Customers that design and run their software on Sun's grid will form strong ties to Sun's OS, developer tools and hardware. This will in turn make them more likely to buy gear for other projects.

On paper, this plan makes a heck of lot of sense, especially with the likes of IBM, HP and Dell declining to pursue similar efforts. (That last line is for you, Aisling. Now please stop punching me.) ®

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