In his two-year-old book The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr talks about the coming age of cloud computing. He uses as a basic analogy the history of the adoption of electric utilities in the United States in the early 20th century (this becomes clear when you look past the first three words of the title to the post-colon – the full title is The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google). As a student of technology revolutions myself (especially the adoption of rail travel, telephony and electricity), I found the book excellent, though lacking in one important respect – it brushes rapidly by the fast-changing character of electric utilities. Where the late 19th century and early 20th century saw the success of Westinghouse’s large, centralized electric utilities pumping power over long distances (a success, it should be noted, over Edison’s own short-distance direct current plans), the early 21st century is slowly seeing a change toward more distributed, local generation & storage of electric power, especially involving renewable sources like wind and solar.
It suddenly struck me last month that we’re seeing the opposite trend in another kind of grid – in fact, the computing utility grid that Carr talks about, or more du jour, cloud computing. Where computing has gone from some level of utility focus in its early days (think of Telenet and other shared-mainframe computing services, including my own Multics background) to very local, small-scale computing with the personal computer revolution of the 1980’s, the nexus of broadband Internet access, cheap and broadly adopted virtualization, and standard information sharing protocols has led us to shared cloud computing. Just don’t think it’s a particularly new idea – at the centennial of my alma mater, MIT, a young professor (later to be quite famous as a founder of the field of Artificial Intelligence) said
Computing may some day be organized as a public utility, just as the telephone system is a public utility.
That was 1961, by the way. Some people are just prescient. I like to think that OMG had some part in that too, with our now two-decade old (and still growing) invention of the standardized middleware market (and in fact the term “middleware”) with our first standard, CORBA, in 1990.
What made me think of the relationship between smart electric utility grids, and smart computing utility grids, was a fascinating conference I attended in December 2010 in Chicago. The first week of December I attended the annual Grid-Interop conference in Chicago. This conference brings together the leading US organizations in the smart electric power grid space, both public utilities and energy infrastructure providers. The primary movers on US grid standards are two organizations:
- The Department of Energy's Gridwise Alliance ( http://www.gridwise.org/); and
- The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)'s Smart Grid Interoperability Standards Project (SGIP, http://www.nist.gov/smartgrid/), funded by 2010’s mammoth U.S. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
The US Congress deemed this important enough that they directed the President to create a new “czar,” the National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability — in the person of George Arnold (late of Lucent & ANSI). George and I spoke at some length at the conference, and he made it clear that standards are going to be very important in this effort and said, “We need OMG to participate in this effort.” We certainly intend to honor that request!
The following week at the OMG Technical Meeting in Santa Clara, we held an initial meeting specifically on Smart Grid standards. John A. Teeter, Chief Scientist of People Power Corporation, led the meeting. Attendees took a look at the status of the Smart Grid Interoperability Standards Project (SGIP) and undertook a review of relevant standards, with presentations from Stan Schneider, Real-Time Innovations; Joe Hughes, then of the Electric Power Research Institute; and Michael Leppitsch, Gridata, Inc.
There are many things OMG can bring to the table for Smart Grid — not only do many of the key players in this effort already use UML extensively, but various bits of smart energy grids require rule systems, component and systems modeling, control protocols, and so forth — all areas where OMG has domain expertise if not standards already in place. Plans are already moving forward to put together an Energy Task Force at OMG, which could focus on a number of things — home control, home-to-utility protocols, rule systems for load shedding & sharing — there are many possibilities. Interested parties are already holding conference calls to get the effort launch formally at OMG. The first Requests for Proposal are already being drafted. Interested in participating? Contact Ken Berk or +1-781-444 0404 to learn more.
Thinking through the issues, however, brought me back to OMG’s distributed computing experience (especially CORBA and DDS), and more importantly, OMG’s activities in cloud computing. As world energy grids move to take advantage of wider distribution of energy storage and generation, the computing world is rapidly going the other direction, moving computation into utility service centers, delivered by the worldwide Internet. It will never be a 100% move – not with the price and size of computational power continuing to drop like a rock. In fact I’m typing this without access to the Internet at the moment (yes, I know, you’re surprised, I’m in an airplane, currently halfway across the Pacific Ocean, headed to meetings on healthcare in Australia and systems engineering in Japan – but that’s for a later blog entry!). I’m typing on a wide screen, with a 2.6GHz processor and a 500GB hard drive in a package that could be even tinier if I didn’t have to be able to see it and type on it! Likewise, my car has dozens of tiny processors in it, and cannot be in a position to need Internet access at all times. So I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a mix of local, distributed and cloud-based computation for a very long time.
So what’s OMG’s involvement in cloud computing? First, some history; OMG has been involved in cloud standardization issues for over a year now, in two distinct areas:
- We cofounded an informal group called Cloud-Standards.org (http://cloud-standards.org/) in which we, and a dozen or so other standards groups, cooperate closely on cloud standards to ensure limited overlap and maximum utility. We hosted the first few physical meetings, and participate on the biweekly teleconferences to keep in synch with other groups. This is critically important as it helps manage the huge resources going into cloud standards; but it also provides a very visible place for OMG (and OMG members) to take leadership roles in cloud standards. We participate and contribute also in Cloud-Standards.org outreach all over the world, from the US National Defense University to the European Commission.
- Our particular standards focus, as always, is on modeling—specifically, modeling deployment of applications on various cloud infrastructures. I believe that our biggest contribution will be in the area of modeling service-level agreement (since we already have active work in software quality, assurance and other related fields), but I imagine it will be broader than that. There have already been wide-ranging discussions about other deployment-modeling issues, including security management.
In addition, we have held a few events to learn requirements and sharpen our focus on user needs not already represented by other partners in the cloud-standards world; in fact, just last month we held a very successful workshop on cloud standardization. Starting at the next OMG meeting, in March we’ll be putting in place new leadership for the effort – a major vendor and a major systems integrator have put their names forward for leadership positions.
I’m personally looking forward to these two efforts – energy grid modernization standards and computation grid modernizations (cloud computing) standards – especially as we learn the analogies, similarities and differences between the two. It’s an exciting time to be building networks!