Grid technology uses divide-and-conquer tactics to distribute computationally intensive tasks among any number of separate computers for parallel processing. It allows unused CPU capacity - including, in some cases, the downtime between a user's keystrokes - to be used in solving large computational problems. While this technique has long been used to satisfy the insatiable computational needs of Wall Street's "quant jocks" at trading firms and investment banks, grid computing is taking hold in other areas of financial services, including insurance, corporate banking and even retail finance.
Like the Internet, grid computing started in academia and the national defense industry and has moved into the commercial marketplace, along with its proponents. Phil Cushmaro used to work on grid computing applications for the defense industry, designing device drivers and operating systems for Duluth, Ga.-based Concurrent Computer Corp. Now, he's CIO of Credit Suisse First Boston, the corporate and investment-banking arm of the Credit Suisse Group with $689 billion in assets.
Grid technology has come a long way since Cushmaro's earlier experiences. Fifteen or 20 years ago, he says, "distributed-computing" solutions existed, but they were heavily embedded in vendor solutions. "You couldn't re-deploy those solutions, or the components of those solutions," he explains. Now, the software market has evolved to the point where it's possible to allow disparate applications to take advantage of any available computing power in a heterogeneous computing environment, at any time of day.
Drawing upon the work of the Globus Alliance, a technology consortium that publishes industry standards for grid computing, IT administrators can mix and match applications and processors. "Now, you can basically take anybody's computer and anybody's software, and as long as it obeys this standard, it can participate in the grid," says Jason Bloomberg, analyst at Waltham, Mass.-based technology consultancy ZapThink.
That's in theory, at least. True interoperability will take time. "Once you agree on a standard, you have to implement it, and once you implement it, you have to do interoperability testing on different products using that standard," says Lawrence Ryan, director of the financial-services industry practice at Hewlett-Packard. "There are standards today, yes, but these standards are also evolving very rapidly. They're not there yet." That's why companies including HP, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Intel, NEC, Network Appliance, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and others have formed the Enterprise Grid Alliance, based in San Ramon, Calif., which promotes standards for enterprise grid applications.