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There's more to utility computing than Amazon.com. Sun also has its own cloud-based computing platform, Network.com. Unlike EC2, though, it's a grid, meaning it specializes in parallel processing, where a task can be broken into independent steps that a large array of processors can tackle all at once. That limits its use to applications such as rendering, data scrubbing, and image transformation. "Not everything can be thrown at the Sun grid," says Subbu Manchiraj, vice president for technology at Infosolve Technologies, a provider of data management services. But where a task can be parallelized, the benefit is huge, he said.
Infosolve has used the Sun grid for the past 18 months to scrub names and addresses, making sure they are correct (such as verifying the ZIP code and ensuring that the street addresses are properly segmented). "With Sun, we can run 2,000 processors and get the data back quickly." Plus, Infosolve is a Java shop, so its application development skills were easily tuned to the style of Sun's grid apps. That let Infosolve offer its customers a turn-key data-scrubbing service it couldn't afford to stand up itself. "It's an offsite datacenter. And we pay only for what we use," he adds.
The grid's quick scalability has meant that Infosolve doesn't need to worry about balancing customers' loads. But another factor also helps Infosolve avoid worrying about scheduling: The jobs are batched, and customers have no expectation of real-time response. Thus, if resources do run out, the customer won't ever know. Ditto if there's a failure: "We can just restart the job," Manchiraj says.
Testing out online IDEs
Less mature than the cloud infrastructure plays are the app dev and app hosting platforms provisioned over the Internet. These are intended for apps that will be delivered over the Internet and through the browser anyhow, such as online commerce and services and apps delivered to mobile and remote employees. So it's no surprise that most early adopters of these online IDEs are themselves Web-based service providers.
A typical example is Jobscience, a provider of recruiting services. The company had been using Salesforce.com's customization tools, so it had gown comfortable with the underlying service availability. At the same time, the company struggled to manage its Adobe ColdFusion-based server environment, so CEO Ted Elliott began looking at using an outside hosting firm to simplify its ability to provision customers over the Internet. "But they manage to the stack, not to the app," Elliott says, and he wanted an environment that was operationally optimal, not just technically correct. So he turned to Salesforce.com's Force.com platform as a service to create and host the apps.
Elliott's biggest challenge was internal: His developers didn't want to let go the control over the app environment. But now, "they're starting to see what they can build that doesn't exist [in Force.com] while using the basics [in Force.com] such as calendaring and scheduling," he notes. So the in-house developers get to innovate differentiating apps, not build the basics that everyone else already has.