Cloud computing the focus of collaboration between HP, Intel and Yahoo

Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) and Yahoo Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO) are embarking on a joint research project focused on cloud computing, an approach that already is starting to reshape IT and leading to development of some of the world’s largest data centres.

The three companies, in a joint announcement Tuesday, said they also will be working with universities in the U.S. and Germany and with the Singapore government’s IT development agency as part of the new Cloud Computing Test Bed initiative. Cloud-computing infrastructures will be set up at six facilities around the world to support research on hardware, software and data centre management issues related to large-scale, Internet-hosted computing, the companies said.

The cloud-computing setups will primarily be based on HP hardware equipped with Intel processors, with between 1,000 and 4,000 processor cores being installed at each of the facilities. The installations, which are expected to be up and running later this year, will run open-source software such as the Apache Software Foundation‘s Apache Hadoop distributed computing technology and Pig, a parallel programming language developed by Yahoo’s research and development unit.

The new research effort may turn out to be the point of the spear behind a more concerted commercial push into cloud computing technologies by IT vendors. The cloud approach, which relies on an Internet-based architecture that is both scalable and flexible, can be used for internal, inside-the-firewall applications or to support computing services for external users.

The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency, the Pentagon’s IT arm, is among the users that are adopting the cloud model for internal uses. But the real attention thus far has been on Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which are both building massive data centres that will use cloud architectures to deliver online services to businesses and home users.

Martin Reynolds , an analyst at Gartner Inc., said that the approaches being taken by Google and Microsoft involve some specific applications. What Yahoo, HP and Intel want to accomplish, he added, is to develop cloud-based systems that can handle a broader range of applications. The three companies and their partners will also look at the data centre needs posed by such systems, including power and cooling requirements, management tools and hardware-latency issues.

“The challenge with cloud computing is making it truly scalable,” Reynolds said. “You don’t just have to build one huge cloud that is controlled by one huge vendor running just a very narrow set of applications.”

HP, Intel and Yahoo hope that by banding together, they can foster increased collaboration among IT vendors, universities and government agencies on cloud computing, which they said is being hampered by “financial and logistical barriers.”

But the interests of the three companies varies. For HP, broader adoption of cloud computing might mean more IT services deals as well as selling more hardware. For Intel, it could mean increased demand for processors. And the research initiative could give Yahoo the ability “to start moving its infrastructure forward,” Reynolds said.

The other partners in the initiative include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. The National Science Foundation will also be involved as part of the work being done at the University of Illinois, the companies said.

Non-founding members will be invited to participate in the research initiative by year’s end, said John Manley, director of the automated infrastructure lab at HP Labs in Bristol, England. And much of the intellectual property that comes out of the research work will be shared with other companies, according to Manley. “The intention is to be very open about the results,” he said. “This is being set up as an open collaborative framework.”

Manley said the initiative also could spawn new topics for researchers to study, such as how to ensure that cloud-computing services continue running when IT equipment fails. “It might well be that some of the fault-tolerance mechanisms we know nowadays have a hard time scaling,” he said.

Other concerns that Manley cited include the need to be able to quickly set up cloud-based services while securely partitioning them from one another, and the complexity of managing virtual machines in cloud computing architectures.

The collaborative effort will create “an open-source test bed where people can add anything that they wish to,” with the goal of advancing cloud computing research and education, said Prith Banerjee, senior vice-president of research at HP and director of its HP Labs unit.

Banerjee added during a teleconference that HP, Intel and Yahoo want to “bring together the brightest researchers around the world to experiment and innovate in areas of cloud computing.”

The three companies, which aren’t disclosing their planned financial investments in the initiative, believe that the academic research community needs access to larger systems if it is going to participate in cloud computing development efforts.

“Universities don’t have the equipment to conduct deep research at Internet scale,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, who heads Yahoo Research. And, Raghavan said, developing the next generation of Web-based services “will demand collaborative research,” with academic institutions helping companies such as Yahoo to “create applications on truly large-scale computing systems.”

Juan Carlos Perez and Jeremy Kirk of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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