HP’s grand future picture of on-demand computing

25 Mar 2004

BRISTOL: Fifteen years into the future, global computing power will be provided by a mass of utility data centres (UDCs) linked together by a broadband-speed network fabric. Larger businesses may still have their own data centres but in the main computing power will be delivered by a hierarchy of service providers. This was the future of computing described by HP executives yesterday during a press briefing at HP Labs in Bristol.

Dr John Manley, head of the Bristol facility – the second largest HP research centre after Palo Alto in Silicon Valley – predicted that global computing infrastructure would consist of a “global fabric of billions of interconnected resources.”

Driving this computing revolution, he said, were “an emerging class of applications that have computing, communications and storage needs that are up to three times what we have today.” These applications would be “interaction intensive” he noted, citing the gaming and entertainment and digital media industries among the major growth areas.

Manley saw utility computing – or grid computing as it also known – as the next phase of the computing evolution that began with mainframe computers in the 1950s and continued through the PC and internet years.

The emergence of ‘service providers’ would be a primary feature of the utility computing era. “We’re going to see layers of service providers being built up – lots of brokers, traders, aggregators as well as high-value service providers… The interesting question is: who are the players going to be, how will they play and how will the infrastructure arise to support this model?”

Manley added that HP was investing heavily in the utility computing idea and had put the first building blocks in place in the form of utility data centres (UDCs) in Palo Alto and Bristol. He said the company was moving towards being an ‘adaptive enterprise’ – one which viewed computing not as a cost centre but as a source of competitive advantage.

Utility computing requires computing resources – such as servers, networks, storage and applications – to be made available ‘on demand’ ie, wherever and whenever it is needed by different parts of the organisation. For example, the company has begun a programme to integrate its two UDCs so as to pool the massive IT resources and manage them as a single entity to support the research objectives of the business.

The two sites currently share about 350-400 servers but HP Labs plans to increase the number to 2,000 between the two sites, without the need for additional staff or space. According to Peter Hindle, head of software solutions at HP UK, this would result in Palo Alto having a one of the world’s top 20 supercomputers and Bristol having a top 50 cluster.

As well as supporting HP’s own research, the UCDs are also being used to carry out experiments on behalf of university and industry partners. For example, HP Labs is supporting an operational grid for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics at Geneva. Computing resources from a number of HP Lab sites around the world have been linked together to help CERN number-crunch streams of data produced during experimental research.

Manley believed that while cost reductions was the major benefit so far being attributed to utility computing, this would change. “My view is that it’s not about cost reductions for your servers but about more power being available that will change industry structures and business models.”

To drive its vision of utility computing, HP is embarking on a three-pronged plan. Firstly, it plans to establish within the next two years a HP International Animation Film Festival in which all of the entrants will be given the opportunity to use HP’s UDC for on-demand rendering of animation frames.

It has already completed one such project with a Bristol-based animation studio, 422 South. Last year, the studio made a critically acclaimed four-minute animation short, The Painter, which has been shortlisted for the British Animation Awards. Instead of doing rendering work itself, however, 422 South fed the frames through to the Bristol UDC via a broadband connection and received the rendered images back.

“Rendering requires a lot of computing power. It’s a very stressful process usually done close to delivery time,” explained Andy Davies-Coward, managing director of 422 South. “The Painter would have taken about 50 days on the 422 render farm but it was rendered in 17 days using UDC.”

The success of process has spurred HP to consider not only a full-blown animation competition but also – and this is the second part of its strategy – to fulfil some sort of service provision role for the whole digital media industry. To facilitate this, HP has established a loose affiliation of the players within Bristol’s digital media industry, including the BBC, the University of Bristol, 422 South and Bristol Interactive Cluster.

Describing the rationale for creating a provision industry, Manley remarked: “If we don’t do it in Bristol or somewhere else in the UK, it’s going to happen somewhere else in the world and the faster we can accelerate it the better.”

The third strand of the HP strategy is to create a Life Sciences service provider to drive utility computing into the biotechnology and pharma sector.

Manley says that while HP is committed to all of these paths, they may take several years to come to fruition. It is also unclear what role HP itself would fulfil in this service-centric world – as an SP itself, an infrastructure provider to the SP or an incubator to future SPs? Only time will tell how HP’s ambitious vision of utility computing actually materialises.

By Brian Skelly