The Network is the Computer

Allow me to once again apologize in advance for a lack of brevity. This is one of those blogs you wait a career to write.

A few years ago, I was sitting across from a Wall Street CIO, one of many I was visiting in New York. I was asking them all the same question, “do you feel the grid you’re building is delivering a competitive advantage to your business?” (For those that don’t know what a grid is, it’s a collection of low cost network, storage, computing and software elements, lashed together to do work that historically required very expensive dedicated proprietary technologies). I asked the same question of CIO’s in the energy industry, using grids to find oil. In the life sciences industry, using grids to discover drugs or model proteins. In the movie industry, using grids to render movies.

The answers I received, typically delivered by an impassioned CTO that had spent a year building a grid, was always the same: “absolutely yes. Our grid is way better than any of our competitors’.”

I haven’t stopped asking that question. But about a year ago, after Sun outlined plans to build a public, multi-tenant grid (just like the power companies run), and make it available for $1/cpu-hr, and after a few industry notables began suggesting change was afoot, I started hearing a different tune. “Um… maybe my grid’s no different than anyone else’s.”

Now, since John Gage first uttered the phrase, Sun has been saying “The Network is the Computer.” It’s one of those rare vision statements that only becomes more true over time. And next week, we’re going to prove the point by unveiling the world’s first on demand supercomputer. And by on demand, I mean accessible through your browser, with a credit card. This isn’t yesterday’s definition of On Demand, involving custom financing contracts, prepositioned inventory and a sales rep in a crisp blue suit ready to negotiate. Nope, our definition is just like eBay’s: you bring a browser and a credit card, we offer the service. No fuss, no muss. We believe the simplicity, accessibility and affordability of this service changes the face of computing for all organizations, large and small, public or private.

The Sun Grid (which will be officially unveiled in a few days) is an offering we and our partners will be expanding over the months and years to come – like any good product, there’s no end to the innovation possible. This represents not only the future of product development at Sun, but like the Java platform and the internet itself, it really represents the future of computing.

As strange as it may sound, consumers are way ahead of most enterprises when it comes to using grids (and paying for them). Most of us live on the grid at home – we use Google and Yahoo!, we love eBay, we upload and share photos and movies, and gather our
web. Most of us bank from home, we leverage network email services – and if you think about it, that transformation all occurred within the last decade. In the blink of an eye.

But behind the corporate firewall, the transformation toward multi-tenant grids has been slower. Frankly, it’s been tough to convince the largest enterprises that a public grid represents an attractive future. Just as I’m sure George Westinghouse was confounded by the Chief Electricity Officers of the time that resisted buying power from a grid, rather than building their own internal utilities. But that’s not to suggest it hasn’t been happening in the business world.

Witness the meteoric rise of – or RightNow, or PayPal – or any of a number of other services designed to replace traditional infrastructure behind the corporate firewall. Smaller businesses especially have flocked to the grid to spare themselves the headaches of architecting and owning their own datacenters.

But larger enterprises have been tougher to convince. As an example, for the past 15 months, we’ve been negotiating with one financial institution interested in leveraging our grid for spike loads of portfolio simulations. When their procurement team held up the contract to start negotiating the gauge of chain link we’d use around the grid, and which vendors were approved to supply network cables, we gingerly passed them back to our traditional sales channels – this was clearly a customer that would prefer to build their own infrastructure (can you imagine arguing with PayPal over chain link?). So be it, that’s where most IT is purchased today, and will likely be purchased for decades to come.

But there’s no denying there’s a change occurring.

A good friend of mine, a bioinformatician (love that title), once described how frustrated he was at having to wait for his university’s supercomputing facility. “If you had a grid available on line, I’d bring my whole budget to you.” Granted his budget was something like $10,000 a quarter, but rumor has it there’s a good business in the long tail. My view – most computing will be purchased by that tail. There are, after all, far more small financial institutions than large. The same applies to movie studios, pharmaceutical companies, academic institutions, and nearly every other industry on earth. I’m very comfortable betting on the value in volume – and the willingness of those smaller firms to change culture, process and lifestyle to get a competitive advantage through network services. Just think back ten years – when most enterprises I met laughed at the idea of putting business systems on the internet. Now you’re an anomaly if you’re “off the grid.”

But getting to this week hasn’t been without hiccups. After we announced it, we started working with a number of companies interested in negotiating the equivalent of chain link fencing, as above – we saw IBM Global Services (and HP’s equivalent) in every one of the deals. We learned a lot, but mainly that most enterprises today define On Demand computing as hosting – they want to give their computers, software, networking and storage to a third party, and rent them back for a fixed price. But that’d be like an electricity company collecting generators and unique power requirements, and trying to build a grid out of them. That’s not a business we’re in (nor one in which technology plays much of a role – it’s all about managing real estate and call centers, as far as we can tell). Grids are all about standardization and transparency – and building economies of scale.

Building a secure, publicly available multi-tenant grid also turned out to be exceptionally complex – there’s a reason no one had ever done it before. Most grids are application specific – for search, or auctions or payment. A general purpose computing grid was ploughing new ground – and we wanted to ensure availability and security would be as high as possible. To stress the grid, I actually sent mail to all of Sun’s employees challenging them (with the promise of a new workstation) to see if they could bring it down. On the theory I’d rather have a Sun employee, especially a Sun engineer with deep insight into our products, show us how to break it, than a rogue user.

After disappointing a huge swath of our employees who couldn’t participate in the contest (our export control policies constrain which elements of our global workforce can be exposed to the grid), we surfaced several vulnerabilities in the very high-scale interaction of hardware, networking and software platforms (again, given that no one’s ever done this before, it wasn’t all that surprising). We also engaged with the folks who monitor technology export control for the US Government (if there’s a harder civil service job in the government, I’d like to know it) – who helped us ensure the grid wouldn’t be accessible to people with nefarious intent. They understood we wanted to make this as simple as applying for an eBay account – we’ll be close, but we’ve got to have a higher level of scrutiny (which is why, when you apply for an account, it’ll take a few hours, and won’t be instantaenous – but that’s our goal).

Those are just a few of the hurdles we faced, but now we’re ready – ready to release the first, publicly accessible instantiation of the future of computing. And here are a few things to be aware of:

First, in this first release, the Sun Grid will be available only to customers inside the US. Why? Export constraints. Stay tuned for international availability. And yes, we will be doing this globally.

Second, don’t expect instant account provisioning.
We’re shooting for a few hours, depending upon demand, and no worse than 24 hours. But please be patient. We are focused on ease of provisioning, but we’re also conscious of the risk and security requirements.

Third, we’re opening on day 1 with less than 5,000 cpu sockets (both Opteron and UltraSPARC) – the world’s most power efficient servers. As demand emerges, we’ll be adding to that capacity – without limitation.

And finally, stay tuned for the web service API’s. What you’ll see this week is relatively simple, and a version 1.0 foundation for what’s in store. Where are we headed? To release computing as a service, to be mashed up with other services (I can hear VC’s around the world offering a standing ovation – ‘no more having to build one datacenter per startup!’)

If you’re read this far, here’s a final bit of color on the incredibly fortuitous domain name for the future of computing:

As it turns out, midway through Sun’s due dilligence in the acquisition of StorageTek, we learned they were the owners of They hadn’t really ever used it – a hidden gem. In hindsight, it may end up being one of the most valuable domain names in the history of computing. And we’re certainly going to do what we can to burnish that value…

So have at it! Go to later this week, grab a PayPal account, and experience for yourself what it’s like to use one of the world’s largest supercomputers. Without having to house it, manage it, power it, administer it, provision it… or buy it.

The Network is the Computer.

Once again, more true by the day.


Filed under General

35 responses to “The Network is the Computer

  1. Mark Brouwer

    Well Jonathan, I guess congratulations with the first public grid. However I find it somewhat disappointing you are getting excited about the upcoming Web Services API, while that is so antique compared to your own services technology called Jini (talking about hidden gems …). I do understand the demand for a Web Services API, but while paving the road ahead make sure you build a fast lane as well.

  2. Congratulations on getting this off the ground. Utility computing (if it’s done right) has the potential to be pretty revolutionary for companies wishing to offer on-line computing servces; and I’m not sure how many people get that yet.

    It’s easy to explain why the change is revolutionary. Imagine, say, that you had a fantastic idea for a search engine that was way better than Google, and you’d written the software. The problem is that, when you want your service to go live, you have to invest upfront to build your compute infrastructure. That means, almost at day one, you’ll be looking for VC or Angel money. There are two consequences to that: statistically, you won’t get any money – so your business will never get off the ground; if you do get funded, by taking outside money early, you’ll be giving away most of your equity.

    The point is: utility computing could fundamentally change the economics of starting up and scaling on-line services. The day the Sun Grid can be used to build the next Google/Ebay/Flickr, is the day that it becomes a massive success. Never mind VCs giving a standing ovation; Entrepreneurs should love this.

    Clearly, the Sun Grid is a way off being able to do this yet. I really hope it evolves to the point where it enables people to build businesses around valuable on-line computing services.

  3. In 1943 Thomas Watson, IBM Computers said: “I think there is a world market for as many as 5 computers.”. Maybe he, actually, was right after all?!? šŸ™‚

  4. I can’t try the sample application, it says “currently off-line for maintenance”. I hope it’s not because I’m in Canada. Are you really constrained from offering it here? I guess it does make sense to build up users somewhat gradually, to avoid the introductory scaling issues like google analytics and others services have had. Anyway, the service seems cool. You should put some storage in there too and head off S3. Get the website checked out too, you got some 404s on there.

  5. Jonathan, unfortunately, i think, the grid is not for the globe. I am from India [chennai to be very specific, living in the south corner of India] and i am not able to get an account inside sun grid. Are you sure, that the “Network is the computer” is only for United States šŸ˜‰

  6. Mike Piazza

    I would love to know how Sun feels the grid can add meaningful revenue and profits the financials. It seems like it would take an unrealistic amount of users to gain any sizeable revenue.

  7. I’ll be curious to see how the … I guess “interface” is, for lack of a better term.
    If I’ve got some custom code written in Malbolge (google it) that I want to run on the grid, will this be possible?
    Will I be copy/pasting code into a web browser form or will I be running a local java app which connects to the grid and provides some front-end?
    I guess I agree with the general sentiment that grid computing as a utility has -huge- potential, however I think the devil may end up being in the details. Whilst I wouldnt be one to argue over chain link fence, I’d certainly be weary if there was a steep learning curve to take advantage of it ..
    Just some thoughts, from a repeat Sun customer.

  8. hi jonathan,
    congrats!! on the rollout.
    Will some of these partners also have a friendly ISP interface ? Because the startups like to see a friendly ISP interface. The implementation can be a grid, traditional ISP, etc. But startups, entrepreneurs, bloggers like the ISP interface.
    Hope the future slashdotted stories will find a way to use the grid — maybe you and slashdot can give a business service to all those sites who are target sites for getting slashdotted. And then, they will say “We used to get ‘slashdot’ted but now we’re ‘Network’ed” šŸ™‚
    global plans : what kind of pricing are you thinking ?

  9. John Cawley

    Why not extend Sun’s excellent concept of “Reference Architectures” to the Sun Grid?
    One gets the sense the market is unsure where to start and where to focus. It’s death by a thousand cuts–or in this case, questions that you may never even hear. Providing ready-made examples of customers’ choices can answer many questions as well as define norms (so you won’t be asked to provide a certain kind of chain link fence).
    “Customer A is a life sciences leader. Here’s exactly how they set up and ran their project on Sun Grid.” In other words, less on marketing, more on guidance.
    Walk ’em through it. Give them a menu.

  10. >>In hindsight, it may end up being one of the most valuable domain names in the history of computing.

    No kidding.

    I for one am looking forward to using the grid.

    Now let me demonstrate with my ignorance of all things grid-like: How do I run a python script on the grid? I assume that python is a standard solaris 10 component. So can I just run the python script as a script?

    Let me tell you. I too am excited about being able to use the grid. And I am excited about web-services API for grid services.

    Overall, good post. Informative, short and to the point.

  11. Prince

    I strongly believe this thing will take hold among
    small business players. The internet mindshare and use is increasing. Last year i was doing most of utility bills paper form. This year i have most of the bill pay online.
    But watch out. Pioneers get the arrows in the back šŸ˜‰

  12. We really need more information about how we’d interact with it, before we can say if it meets our needs or not.
    All I personally would need is the ability to push WAR files into my own unshared Tomcat instance, and start and stop Tomcat; the standard Admin servlet would do nicely. From there, I can do whatever I need to, even running shell utilities (Runtime.exec() is my friend).
    Other people may have more demanding needs. If this is to be a “real” supercomputing environment, people will want shell access.

  13. Congrats to the team for the launch!
    It would be interesting to do one of these —
    to walk through an example of using the service.
    Not sure whom to contact, but I reckon if I post here it’ll get to the right place šŸ™‚

  14. Osman Din

    Excellent. Sounds like a revolutionary idea.

  15. Sid Art

    excellent. Now if your sales/marketing guys can avoid the whole Niagara trial episode I believe this is really wonderful thing!!
    BTW I hope you guys do realize that this is going to put you into competition with internal IT (esp. the ones in ivory towers) in many places. I can already hear your competitor’s golf course whispers on how users would get out of control if IT didn’t clamp down on indiscrimate use of grid computing šŸ™‚
    Now if you could throw in some free hosting with it ala Google that would really be the icing on the cake.

  16. Harsh C

    I was very excited to read today’s blog and went to to check it out. I think I understand the concept of a compute utility. However, I am not very clear as to the part about:
    1. The public rollout. What would it mean for:
    a. Me, as a developer
    b. Me, as a regular, average computer user.
    2. The web services API.
    3. How, if at all, does it compare or correspond to the MS Live service?
    To tell you the truth, the answer I am looking for is something that is sexy. That I can go and brag to my .Net friends about. Say it is so…

  17. Ivan Wang

    Now I am a little confused with the criteria of whether or not an application is rated “grid-compatible”.
    From it says that any “32-bit, self-contained appclication” will run on grid. However, how self-contained is enough self-contained. Can we expect 3rd-party libraries, frameworks, toolkits to be available? Also, if the application need other daemon to cooperate with?
    What other resources available to submitted applications? Are they able to bind port and serve that port? Do they have public network access when they are executed? Even scientific computational jobs need to fetch data from database, do job owners need to move data to the grid?

  18. Anonymous

    If the network is the computer then prepared for lots of knockoffs. Google Finance just launched. This is an interesting perspective on how Google Finance shows that Google is no longer an innovator and is merely a knockoff of Yahoo Finance.
    Google Finance Shows That Google is No Longer an Innovator

  19. Milea Milroni

    Well Gordon Bell (yes, “the” Gordon Bell) claims he one coined the phrase “the network becomes the system” at a presentation in New York City on February 10, 1982 and that “the network is the computer” is a (I quote) “similar mantra that SUN Microsystems later appropriated”.

  20. Steve

    When will Sun introduce a grid computing service with which my own interactive applications can be hosted? While I understand the need of certain industries to do disconnected batch processing for simulations and such, it seems that the market for hosting is at least a couple orders of magnitude larger. Not only is this hosting market incredibly fragmented right now, but no grid services are offered; I must figure out how much load I expect and buy computing resources accordingly. Do I buy for the average load, or the effects of a Slashdotting? If Sun starts to offer a grid service by which I can host my J2EE applications, I’ll be a happy early adopter (albeit a long tail one right now!).

  21. I’m keen to know more about your storage options. For example, it would be great if the Sun Grid could access Amazon’s new S3 storage service to get/put data for processing by grid jobs.
    By the way, <u></u> works fine, but just <u></u> doesn’t bring up a page. Thought you should know. Usability is everything!

  22. Were I a betting man, I don’t know whether I would bet for you or against you on this venture, but it certainly is bold. The pricing structure sounded high before I thought about it, but your price point is very good, and arguably a bargain. The real question is this: How many stateless (or relatively state-free) applications are there that need massive amounts of parallel computing power, and that the “customer” would be willing to let run on Someone Else’s Hardware ™?
    This is very unlikely to work with financial services grids, which are the form I am most acquainted with, but it could be a great solution for ray tracing (rendering), and the leading software packages could even make it an option (“Render using Sun Grid…” menu option).
    Good luck, and see you at JavaOne.

  23. [Trackback] Sun Microsystems is about ready to launch a centralized public Grid system made up of 5,000 CPU sockets, a mix of Ultrasparc and Opteron. The announcement came today (March 21, 2006) via Jonathan Schwartz on the Sun corporate blog.

  24. TO Mark Brouwer – comment #1:
    Mark – we have partnered with Sun to run our Jini and JavaSpaces implementation on the Sun Grid. For more info see, and some more info on Dan Hushon’s blog.

  25. Chris Paul

    Congratulations on your first public grid! I do hope you and Sun succeed.
    It is interesting that you restate the dictum “Network is the Computer” yet you don’t support the notion of an network based version of OpenOffice/Staroffice. Google bought Writely and pretty soon the market will see a viable version of *Office that can be served online. Where would that take the bulky OpenOffice ?
    I would be interested to see a blog from you on your rationale on this.

  26. J.F. Zarama

    Will it be available for Canadian registrations and if so when?
    Kudos for offering the service, making it available to the public and for securing

  27. Jonathan, this is great! My quick tour was a success, but one thing… I think the pricing needs to be tweaked a bit. Can I get my dollar back?

  28. [Trackback] Sun’s Grid computing service launched today and I opted for the $1.00 tour.

  29. Very good site. You are doing great job. Please Keep it up… .!

  30. Michael Stevens

    Sounds great! How long do we have to wait outside the USA?

  31. It’s great to see Sun pushing the envelope again!

  32. Alex Lam

    I am not sure about the vision really – sending a community newletter urging everyone in the world to try out, then got stuck and eventually find out that it is only available in the US isn’t quite what I’d call a pleasant experience.
    In fact, it feels rather insulting.

  33. vruz

    This is truly BIG advancement and a disruptive force with a lot of potential.
    Congratulations to all the teams involved at Sun.
    Congratulations and thanks yous go to Sun as a whole for putting some cpu cycles to good use with ODF

    Now some thoughts … I can’t run my Linux/Windows/OSX apps on it unless I rewrite in Java… or become an OpenSolaris developer
    How about supporting apps that run on (Linux-based) Sun’s Java Desktop System ?

    You mentioned the Grid has the potential of becoming a startup-enabler because startups no longer have to create their own data-centre to get bootstrapped fast.

    Some startups I know require very massive storage resources, not just computing power.
    Does the StorageTek acquisition play a part on this ?

    Web startups achieve faster development cycles using languages like Python, PHP or Ruby to get their work done (sorry… not precisely Java)

    I envision the Grid being many things to many people, (for example: the benefits for the small studio 3d video rendering are obvious to me)
    but I just don’t see how this Grid can be a perfect match for a startup entrenched in supersonic development cycles.

    Perhaps you want to ellaborate more on that ?

    PS: minor feature, not working:

  34. Well Jonathan, I can understand why you are so enthused by this news and the blog entry. On first view it’s easy to say “so what”, and there are these and those problems but these will all be overcome, when I think about the actual applications for this offering it is staggering. I work within Talis a software development company in the UK and we deal with massive quantities of metadata that need to be stored, manipulated and transferred and I can already see many obvious applications on how we can improve not only our own internal services that consume this data but also the services we offer to our external customers and partners. So hurry up and get this rolled out to the UK so we can actually see and use the grid.

  35. Anonymous

    It seems some of Sun’s competitors are ‘concerned’ about the simplicity of Sun’s grid:
    They say, Sun’s offering doesn’t deal with crucial issues such as liability, confidentiality, and security

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