It was powerful enough to decode the human genome, but can it crunch its way through gigabytes of supply chain data, pulling meaningful information from a swirl of zeroes and ones? Advocates of a technique known as "grid computing," which harnesses the power of many PCs to form what's essentially a supercomputer, are betting that it can.
Grid computing is a means of sharing computer power across a company—taking the PCs and the servers that wire them together and configuring the whole system to work as a supercomputer. This allows a company to tap into enormous stores of computer power that would otherwise go unused. And it doesn't matter where those computers are located.Whether it's sitting on a colleague's desk in the next cubicle or perched on a table in Bangalore, any company computer can be hooked to the grid.
Convinced that grid computing may deliver the next supply chain breakthrough, IBM has provided a shared university grant to fund research on ways businesses can use this kind of "supercomputing" to respond to changing market conditions. Recipients include the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State and research labs at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University and the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University. A fourth lab, at the Smurfit School of Business, University College, Dublin, will join the initiative later this summer.
"Supply chain management is a perfect context for exploring whether grid and on-demand computing can provide advanced computing capabilities in a way that is cheaper and/or more reliable," says Craig Kirkwood, who is the coordinator for the IBM University partnership. "That's because a supply chain—which connects suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and customers—requires complex information technology in order to work effectively. Long term we hope to develop a prototype grid for supply chain management."
Kirkwood points out that the technical basis for grid computing is well established. "Grid computing applications have been used in other business areas where there has been a need for a lot of computer power, like the effort to decode the human genome," he says.
The cross-university initiative, which will simulate the workings of a complex supply chain, is supported by IBM software technologies, including WebSphere and AIX as well as the company's eServer pSeries systems. i2 Technologies donated supply chain software for the collaborative project.
The practical application of a computer grid within the supply chain may be several years away. However, students and faculty engaged in the project should have a good idea how the supply chain can benefit—and what steps need to be taken—within 18 to 24 months.