Security to blame for Sun Grid stumble

US State Department specifications cause delay. Robert McMillan reports

Security concerns from the US Department of State have hampered the long-delayed rollout of access to a massive Sun Microsystems computer grid at the rate of US$1 per CPU hour, a Sun executive says.

The company had expected its Sun Grid initiative to go live in early 2005, but a number of logistical problems, including the state department issues, have caused it to push back that date. “It turned out to be much harder than we’d originally expected,” says Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s president and chief operating officer.

“Our servers are considered munitions by the federal government,” Schwartz says. “So when we wanted to provision servers off of our computers to a global population, the federal government got involved and said, ‘we’d like to know all the people who use this.’”

This policy has led to changes in the grid, which cannot be made available to users in certain prohibited countries, Schwartz says. Users who sign up will be required to wait for 24 hours before they can begin using the service so that Sun can ensure that they are not in violation of export controls.

The Sun Grid rollout is now “imminent,” according to a Sun spokesman. But the state department restrictions will prevent the product from becoming the global grid once envisioned by Sun, according to Schwartz.

Although the state department issues seem “legitimate”, they do not change the fact that ongoing delays with the grid have hurt the company’s credibility, says Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst with the Illuminata research firm. “Sun Grid is pretty much a laughing stock, because they announced it multiple times and they failed multiple times to deliver it.”

Despite its missed deadlines, Sun still has high hopes for its grid, which it believes will make supercomputing resources available to companies that cannot presently afford them — small hedge funds or digital animation studios, for example.

Even when Sun Grid becomes generally available, customers may be reluctant to adopt the service as they weigh the compliance and security issues raised by this type of grid computing, Eunice says.

“It’s not so much a calculated security equation as an icky feeling about doing things differently.”

Sun chief executive officer Scott McNealy says this kind of hesitation ultimately scuttled a Sun Grid deployment with an unnamed bank. The bank made so many security and compliance-related demands that Sun eventually walked away from the deal, he says.

“When it came down to it, they said that even though Sun was not able to see the data, they wanted us to warrant that the data would never be lost and, if anybody ever got hold of it, it would be our fault,” he says.

Eventually Sun decided, “We’re out of here; we’ve wasted our time with you guys,” he says.

It could take an exceptional event to finally move a large number of customers over to products like Sun Grid, McNealy says. “It may take natural disasters or a real fundamental crisis to break their adhesions to their traditional way of doing things.”