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Following up on its recent announcement of Sun N1 Grid Computing Utility Pay-Per-Use Cycles, Sun Microsystems has announced its next level of grid computing services, targeted at higher-end customers. More importantly, the announced Sun Utility Computing for High-End Grid, while offered through Sun, is actually being provided by Sun partners.

Sun has announced that the service initially will be provided by Sun partners Atos Origin, CGI and EDS—and likely on Sun proprietary hardware. But there is no requirement that the grid services be running on Sun hardware, or for that matter on Sun’s Solaris operating system, since support is provided by Sun for Linux as well as for its own operating system.

Read more here about Sun’s plan to offer a pay-per-use model of utility computing.

Each of these vendors will provide its own value-add to the utility service, as well as vertical market expertise. The add-on services Sun expects from these partners include such offerings as customization services for unique workload requirements, options for large data sets or custom applications, private and secure partitioning within the vendor’s data center, data management services, customized architecture design, and grid application tuning and integration.

On top of these services, each partner will offer its own applications as well as customer-specific management capabilities. It will be interesting to see how these vendors, and those partners that sign on in the future, will be differentiating their service offerings.

While this is the second phase of the plan that Sun has discussed for making more pervasive use of its grid computing technology, it’s actually the third product, since the Sun Utility Computing for Midrange Sun StorEdge Systems offers a utility computing pay-per-use model for the storage piece of the business model (80 cents per Sun Power Unit, as compared with $1 per CPU hour for the computing cycles business model).

Sun has reported a huge amount of customer interest in the various pay-for-use programs, and has well-oversubscribed its free test drive offer for pay-per-use computing cycles. The actual infrastructure for the Sun offering won’t be in place for at least another three weeks, though the company is testing at least two grids in North America while it tries to cut long-term deals.

While two months from announcement to wide availability doesn’t seem that long in the computer business, Sun is in a race to provide and establish this service before the other big utility computing vendors can duplicate or improve upon its offerings.

Personally, I would consider IBM to be the biggest threat to Sun, especially given its strength in the utility computing marketplace and its connections in the insurance, financial, and petroleum and energy industries that are the most likely consumers of these services on a large scale.

Over the past few weeks, IBM has been talking up the use of big-iron, mainframe computers as service platforms for grid service offerings. It can make a pretty strong case for this concept, given that the nature of mainframe computing translates very well into the pay-per-use model that is being “discovered” by other vendors. And while IBM offers both the software and hardware to back up its entries into the pay-for-services market, it also has decades of experience with this business model, albeit in a somewhat different form, from its history of mainframe services.

Click here to read about IBM’s recent win of six new grid computing customers.

IBM has done a very good job at releasing efficient and powerful servers into the market, this week announcing the release of its new Power5 processor in a number of different hosts. And it recently released some very high-density storage servers, the Total Storage 8000 line, that have the big storage powers such as EMC and HDS e-mailing me with requests to explain their own plans in the face of IBM’s announcements.

I’m keeping a careful eye on both Sun and IBM and their utility computing offerings, but I won’t be surprised if the pressure in this marketplace starts to come from unexpected directions, as service providers looks to offer all sorts of computing services and capabilities to the midrange business market while Sun and IBM define the high end.

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