IBM, Sun offer utility computing services to government

IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. each recently launched on-demand computing services where customers submit work to the companies and pay by the computer cycle used. The companies are marketing the services to agencies with a backlog of high-performance computing tasks, such as the departments of Energy and Defense.

IBM's Deep Computing Capacity on Demand service will allow users to tap into an IBM Blue Gene machine, a 2048-processor system designed for scientific number crunching.

Users establish an initial membership with IBM, which costs $5,000, according to David Gelardi, the IBM vice president overseeing the service. IBM sets up a virtual private network to the customer's base of operations, which is used to upload programs and data to IBM's facilities in Rochester, Minn.

At the beginning of the contract, IBM and the customer work out a pricing structure based on how much the customer plans to use the system. Each customer gets a private partition to store its programs. Gelardi said prices for jobs may vary according to size. As an example, he said a job that would use 512 processors for about a week would run about $10,000, not including storage costs.

IBM is marketing the service to federal agencies that already have supercomputing facilities such as those run by research laboratories, according to Gelardi. IBM can run the jobs when an agency's in-house backlog grows too large.

"It is truly targeted for taking peak demands and unusual, over-the-top requests," Gelardi said. "If some crisis takes hold, and if there is no capacity at any of the national labs, that is exactly where I would step in."

IBM's service will offer a peak performance of 5.7 TFLOPS and will run in Linux, Microsoft Windows and IBM AIX operating environments.

Last month, Sun Microsystems unveiled its computing-on-demand initiative. Government users can tap into Sun's grid computing network for $1 for per hour for every processor and $1 for every gigabyte of storage used per month.

Unlike IBM's service, the Sun service requires no upfront commitment from the customer, said Dan Hushon, Sun's chief technologist for strategic development. A customer submits work through a Web portal, packaging the programs and supporting libraries with a software development kit provided by Sun. The data can be submitted with the programs or separately. The programs must run under Sun's Solaris 10 operating system.

Like IBM, Sun is targeting research, defense and intelligence agency offices with computationally intensive requirements.

"There are some really big high-performance computing programs out there for us to solve," Hushon said, likening the company's service to that of a safety valve. "Should an agency's resources become overtaxed, they could move work in our environment."

The customer's work is carried out at Sun facilities located in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as in Canada, England and Scotland. The services will run on AMD Opteron processor- or IBM PowerPC-based systems. Sun's N1Grid Engine schedules the work.

Eventually Sun hopes to extend the utility service to provide desktop computing environments and hosted Web services.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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