title: A blurry vision?


by: Scott Bradner


On August 2nd, right above a story about a new cheaper generic version of Prozac, the New York Times announced the Internet of tomorrow.  If the prediction comes true network managers may be very glad that Prozac will be getting very cheap in a few months. But, sorry Prozac makers, it will not come true.


The headline read "I.B.M. Making A Commitment To Next Phase Of the Internet."  The article beneath that headline described "grid computing" and said "The grid vision is that everyone at a desktop machine or hand-held computer could eventually have the power of a supercomputer at his or her fingertips, by amassing the processing power and information resources attached to networks."


The basic idea here is to reach out over the network and use the idle power of computers all over the world.  A widely used working example of this is seti@home (http://www.seti.org/) which has been installed on a few million  computers and is trying to look for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  The grid folk (http://www.globus.org/) see a wide application of this type of technology from weather prediction to earthquake simulations.  It does make sense for that type of application, and there are more than a few applications that fit this picture.


OK, I'll bite - why do you and I want this? If the Times headline is right and this is the next phase of the Internet it should be useful for ordinary mortals.  It is true that some software vendors seem to have development projects to increase the size and complexity of their software to compensate for any increases in memory size and processing power but even they will not be able to make use of this much power.  And I don't think I need my Palm Pilot forecasting the weather on its own. 


I.B.M., Microsoft, the US government, a number of European governments and random other groups are putting a lot of money into this grid vision.  I think that only some of this money is being well spent.  The grid technology will be quite useful for a number of applications.  The number of these applications may grow over time, But I do not think the grid will transform the Internet.  The grid vision depends on solving a number of quite hard problems and depends on the assumption that there will be general utility for the idea.  One of these problems is figuring out how to compensate the owners of the computers for their use, without this being solved I fear that the technology will only be actually useful for feel-good projects like listening in on E.T.s calls home.  I also fear that, like DCE which I wrote about a few weeks ago, the cost of management will be higher than the cost of replicating the resources for most applications.


I expect that most of the Internet will be unaffected by the grid vision.  Remember that one of the big strengths of the Internet is that it can support any number of limited use visions like the grid.


disclaimer:  Harvard has seen visions come and go but I did not ask the University about this one.