|The Leading Source for Global News and Information Covering the Ecosystem of High Productivity Computing / February 15, 2008|
On Thursday, Sun Microsystems announced it had attracted 14 new applications to its Network.com utility service for high performance computing. Sun also announced a new partner program, "Sun Network.com Connection," designed to encourage independent software vendors (ISVs) to publish their HPC on-demand applications to the service.
Network.com, launched three years ago as the Sun Grid Compute Utility, offers on-demand HPC for the price of $1 per CPU-hour. The infrastructure consists of about 1,000 x86 processors spread out over hundreds of dual-core Opteron-based Sun servers running the Sun Grid Engine under Solaris. According to Network.com Director Mark Herring, the average load on Network.com is around 60 to 80 percent of capacity. The systems have not been growing rapidly in absolute hardware terms. At this point, additional capacity is accomplished through processor/system upgrades rather than adding more servers.
The Network.com datacenter is currently housed in a Las Vegas facility that is being shared with several casinos. As it turns out, Vegas was a better location for the compute grid than its original site at Sun headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., due to cheaper electricity, more effective cooling (lower humidity in the desert), and a faster on-ramp to the Internet.
When originally devised, the compute grid was meant to be used as a "blank slate," where users would develop and run their own applications on top of the Sun Grid Engine. The company found that customers were more interested in ready-made applications, so the model that has begun to emerge is one where open source and commercial applications are layered on top of the Sun platform and offered as utility services. Like many early grid proponents, Sun started out selling the API and graduated to the utility computing model.
The move from a grid to a utility model has been gradual. Herring says about half the applications run on their infrastructure were developed by end users, and are associated mostly with science and research groups. But on a usage basis, most of the CPU cycles -- he believes as many as 75 percent -- are now being used by applications from the Network.com catalog, and he expects the proportion of these types of apps to continue to grow.
With the 14 added this week, Sun now claims over 40 applications in its Network.com catalog. They span a range of HPC areas, including bioinformatics, computational mathematics, financial analytics, quantum mechanics, electronic design automation, computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis, among others. Currently, most of the applications are free (or free to use and modify under the GNU General Public License). The free applications are available to anyone willing to pay Sun's $1 CPU-hour fee for the use of their computers. Only seven Network.com applications are from software vendors who charge their own licensing fees to users.
One of the new applications just added, called Blender, is an open source frame rendering tool for 3D content creation. It was contributed by a Dutch-based organization (http://www.blender.org/) and is available for use under the GNU General Public License. Since the software itself is free, Sun is hoping smaller commercial artists and graphics designers will be willing to give it a try. On a PlayStation3 or a small HPC setup, video rendering usually takes 1 or 2 hours per frame; Network.com gives the same result in a few minutes. As a proof of concept, Sun is sponsoring Blender Foundation's open movie "Peach," a short animation piece, by providing free cycles on Network.com. The idea with Blender on the grid is that you don't have to be a big animation studio like Pixar or Disney to get access to this technology. Smaller groups or even individual animators can render their own content for the price of the Sun's Network.com fee.
Other new open source applications added this week are ZEUS MP/2 (an astrophysics application), GAP (a computational mathematics application) and OOFEM (a computer-aided engineering application).
Herring says one aspect that Sun has been concerned about is making their service more partner friendly. That's where the new Network.com Connection comes in. It's designed to allow ISV partners to establish an on-demand software model without having the end-user go through Sun. By sticking Network.com on the back-end and the software vendor's application on the front-end, the ISV is able to sell their software directly to customers. Each user job that runs has a Digital Entitlement Token that is used to keep track of CPU usage on the grid. When an ISV's customers start running out of hours, Sun lets the vendor know it will need to acquire more cycles. The customer is not even aware the application is being executed on Sun's infrastructure.
"It's like a true utility model in the sense that we don't have to be in the value chain," explains Herring.
He says the bulk of Network.com is currently being used for computational mathematics and life science applications. With the entry of CDOSheet, a risk analysis application added last June, he's seeing more interest from the financial services realm. In general, the more apps they can attract onto their platform, the more viable the service becomes. Since Sun has only been working with ISVs for about a year, they're really just beginning the process.