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The Mind Electric rethinks grid computing

The Mind Electric has changed its mind. The startup's forthcoming Gaia platform will be positioned as a Web services fabric rather than a grid-computing platform. The451 says the move should boost its appeal to prospective customers, but creates competition with management players like AmberPoint, as well as giants such as IBM, Sun and BEA.

Buoyed by the initial success of its Web services development tool, Glue, The Mind Electric (TME) is planning a big year ahead. It will release version 4.0 of the toolkit in March and plans to come out with an enterprise version later in the year. More importantly, the company is gearing up for 'phase two' of its strategy and has just started beta-testing its eagerly anticipated Gaia platform, which is also slated for release during the second quarter.

In something of a U-turn, however, TME will be pushing Gaia as a runtime environment for service-oriented architectures and not, as originally intended, as a grid computing tool. While this won't make much of a difference to the actual technology platform TME has been developing, it does indicate that grid computing still has much to do to position itself as an enterprise-ready architecture.

Context: According to Graham Glass, TME's founder and chief architect, the Web services development tool Glue formed "phase one" of the company's strategy – a bid to seed the market with a simple and easy-to-use Java Web services platform for building distributed, but individual, applications. The company can be happy with the results: Glue 1.0 was released free of charge in August 2001, and has since been downloaded over 35,000 times. It boasts a 2,000-strong developer community and has been used as the basis of more than 300 project deployments, the majority of which the company says have been inside Global 2000 companies, especially in the financial and telco industries. The Pro version of Glue – for which TME charges about $1,000 per developer and $1,500 per deployed CPU – has so far generated about 70 paying customers.

TME, which currently has 18 employees, is still trying to secure an initial round of VC funding, although it says that the angel investors who stepped in late last year are being "very supportive" and allows it to bide its time until the economic climate improves.

Products: Glue is a tool for developing Web services in Java by tying together Java code, servlets and JSPs without the need to do all the coding by hand. It enables Java objects to be published as Web services, and integrates with EJBs, security models and messaging infrastructures using Java Message Service (JMS).

Glue 3.0 was released in mid-2002 and includes its own HTTP server, J2EE and servlet engines and implementations of SOAP and WSDL, with the Pro version adding support for Java Authentication and Authorization Service (JAAS) for access control, along with JMS and EJB support, introduced in previous Pro versions.

Version 4.0, which will begin shipping next month, represents TME's first bid to break out of the Java mould – the company is keen not to be perceived as a Java-only tools company – and as such will be interoperable with Microsoft .NET, as well as with the WS-Security and WS-Routing specifications.

There are also some new management features providing a real-time view of thread pools, in addition to some SOAP optimization capabilities. And in TME's bid to establish Glue as the 'Turbo Pascal' of Web services, version 4.0 also sports a Flash interface rather than a static HTML interface.

The enterprise version of Glue, due for release in the second quarter of the year, will offer further scalability through native support for failover, load balancing and clustering. Again, the emphasis is on ease of use; TME says EJB over-complicates the server-side component model, and instead Glue uses regular Java objects with a high-performance servlet engine, Web server, JSP engine and Web services stack.

TME hopes these modifications will ensure a relatively smooth transition from Glue to Gaia, its strategic development effort. TME positions this as a Web services runtime "fabric" for connecting endpoints to build scalable service-oriented architectures. The idea is that it will use a peer-to-peer architecture to connect producers and consumers of services and data while shielding them from issues such as failover, load balancing and clustering.

Gaia will run independently of the current infrastructure, with native support for both Java and Microsoft .NET, and so will be able to connect to any JVM or common language runtime (CLR). TME says this allows Gaia to run on anything from enterprise servers to wireless PDAs. It's also considering porting Gaia to the mainframe. Base-level features will include dynamic service discovery and publication, with the option to add services such as failover, clustering, process orchestration and performance monitoring. Pricing for Gaia is expected to be in the "multiple $1,000's" per CPU. TME sees the OEM channel as the major sales opportunity, and it is currently in talks with a number of major players.

Strategy: Since each component of Gaia has been designed as a portable Web service – it is essentially an XML object database that stores all service, session and tracking information in a distributed fashion – TME says it can be used to do things like manage service levels in server farms by deploying servers on demand. Such implementations would help break the link between services and location-dependent physical resources.

Given this scenario, it's easy to see why Gaia was initially billed as a grid computing platform that could help enterprises make use of spare CPU cycles and other resources. Although TME says Gaia will be grid-compatible "out of the box," it is doing its utmost to dissociate itself with grid computing. IBM, grid's leading evangelist, isn't winning the battle of perception in moving it out of the realms of academic conjecture and into mainstream enterprise computing, says TME.

Competition: Apache's AXIS implementation of SOAP represents TME's single biggest competition on the Glue side, the company says, although it counters that AXIS is still many times slower and more difficult to use than its own offering. In-house development projects also form a competitive barrier that TME is looking to overcome, as well as do offerings from the application server vendors – especially IBM and BEA. Cape Clear has all but dropped off its radar from a competitive perspective, the company says.

On the Gaia side, TME doesn't believe anyone is offering such a full-featured product. Although it sees Gaia as much more than a Web services management offering, TME says it will include a 'superset' of management functionality that does place it closer to products from emerging Web services management firms such as AmberPoint. However, the company says the monitoring and versioning capabilities of such products are far more limited because they don't actually provide a runtime environment for Web services. Additionally, it says, these firms don't have the same level of relationship with the development community that TME has fostered, and are offering much higher initial price points than TME is proposing.

Interestingly, TME says its ability to integrate both J2EE and .NET applications has allowed it to foster a 'field' relationship with Microsoft. The company has presented at numerous Microsoft events evangelizing .NET as proof that its technology can exist in mixed environments. There is a potential for Microsoft to actually recommend Glue as a Web services integration platform to its customers, it says.

The451 assessment: By concentrating on the Web services space rather than grid computing, TME is doing itself a big favor in terms of tapping into corporate IT budgets. It has generated plenty of momentum in its short life, and that appears to be continuing. The next few months will be crucial as the company looks for OEM partners that will give it a realistic shot at the big time, and some VC funding wouldn't go amiss in providing stability and engendering confidence among prospective customers.

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