There’s Grid in them thar Clouds, by Ian Foster

You’ve probably seen the recent flurry of news concerning “Cloud computing.” Business Week had a long article on it (with an amusing and pointed critique here). Nick Carr has even written a book about it. So what is it about, what is new, and what does it mean for information technology?

The basic idea seems to be that in the future, we won’t compute on local computers, we will compute in centralized facilities operated by third-party compute and storage utilities. To which I say, Hallelujah, assuming that it means no more shrink-wrapped software to unwrap and install.

Needless to say, this is not a new idea. In fact, back in 1960, computing pioneer John McCarthy predicted that “computation may someday be organized as a public utility”—and went on to speculate how this might occur.

In the mid 1990s, the term grid was coined to describe technologies that would allow consumers to obtain computing power on demand. I and others posited that by standardizing the protocols used to request computing power, we could spur the creation of a computing grid, analogous in form and utility to the electric power grid. Researchers subsequently developed these ideas in many exciting ways, producing for example large-scale federated systems (TeraGrid, Open Science Grid, caBIG, EGEE, Earth System Grid, …) that provide not just computing power, but also data and software, on demand. Standards organizations (e.g., OGF, OASIS) defined relevant standards. More prosaically, the term was also co-opted by industry as a marketing term for clusters. But no viable commercial grid computing providers emerged, at least not until recently.

So is “cloud computing” just a new name for grid? In information technology, where technology scales by an order of magnitude, and in the process reinvents itself, every five years, there is no straightforward answer to such questions.

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