Overcoming Employee ResistanceBy John McCormick | Posted 2002-11-01 Email Print
Project managers at Bristol-Myers Squibb think they can aggregate the processing power of thousands of under-utilized PCs—and save the drugmaker millions in the process.
Overcoming Employee Resistance
Overcoming the resistance of the workers whose machines are connected to the grid was one of the biggest obstacles. Within Bristol-Myers, there was a group of "doubting Thomases," as Vissa calls them, who didn't believe grid computation could run on their PCs without disrupting normal desktop functions.
Vissa took to the road with a demonstration that proved grid computing would not degrade users' PCs in any way. Once people saw the demonstration, Vissa says, their comfort level rose and resistance declined.
And while some users were reluctant to embrace the grid, others couldn't wait to get their hands on it.
"Scientists always want more compute power so that they can try variations on various algorithms," Vissa says.
But with different groups vying for grid access, the company had to figure out a way to set work priorities. Bristol-Myers is handling that potential problem by establishing a governance committee of key scientists to schedule jobs.
There were other people issues. For instance, Bristol-Myers' facility managers—who are responsible for, among other things, keeping Bristol-Myers' utility bills down, would notice unattended PCs up and running. They'd leave a note reminding the owners to turn off their PCs at night—which, of course, would prevent the machine from receiving and processing work from the grid. And then there were the owners of grid-connected laptops who would take their machines home for a night or weekend.
"These are the things you have to wrestle with," Vissa says. He and his team now spend time educating people and bringing the company up to speed on grid-computing procedures.
Most of the technical challenges, on the other hand, were comparatively straightforward.
For instance, the scientific applications Bristol wanted to parse out to its Windows PCs were written for the Unix and Linux operating systems environments. The company went out and brought in a set of software conversion tools that automatically tailor the Unix and Linux applications to run on the Windows PCs.
The company also had to make sure its entire grid-computing programs were secured. Bristol-Myers' grid, which connects PCs on one campus in Connecticut and two in New Jersey, runs over an internal network. All PC computations run in a portion of the Windows operating system, called a security sandbox, that's virtually inaccessible to users. Still, Vissa says, his team is constantly monitoring the system to protect against any intrusions.
"Anybody that's in [information technology] that's not worried about security is not cognizant of the risks," he says.
Neither the drugmaker nor its grid software vendor would say how much Bristol-Myers spent on the project. Platform Computing prices ActiveCluster at $15,000 for the management software and $99 per PC. Those costs would be in line with a Gartner estimate that large grid-computing projects cost between $250,000 and $750,000 for software and services—or about the price of a set of new servers. Yet, the grid platform can expand exponentially by simply adding more PCs. Bristol's goal is to tie just about every PC in the company to the grid.
But while every PC might be a grid-computing candidate, not every computer application is. While perfect for big scientific or mathematical problems that can be easily parsed, computed and compiled, the resources required to run business applications that need to talk with corporate databases aren't practical on a grid. That's primarily because of the huge network traffic jams that would be caused by all the two-way communication between the processor and the data repository. For instance, Bristol-Myers has no plans to frame out a grid-computing scheme for its drug developers because such work demands access to the huge clinical-trial database.
Right now, Gartner's Batchelder says, grid computing is only really suited for very compute-intensive life-science, financial, and mechanical and engineering applications.
"It's not a wonder drug," he says.