Computing Fabrics (1998-2003)

On May 19, 2003: Eric Lundquist, Editor-in-Chief of eWeek, recognized that IBM's On-Demand Computing, HP's Adaptive Enterprise, and Sun's N1 are all movements towards Computing Fabrics as we first predicted them in 1998.

On January 7, 2002: eWeek called our 1998 Computing Fabrics Cover Story "Prescient"
and declared The Grid, a subset of Computing Fabrics, "The Next Big Thing".

Riding the
Third Wave

In the News 2002-2004

Computing's Next Wave 1998
(The First Report)

The Next Big Thing 2002
Computing Fabrics & Grids

The Three Waves of Computing


Defined & Compared


Conferences & Workshops

The Bigger Picture


Computing's Next Wave
Computing Fabrics Stories - 1998

Full Text of Selected Infomaniacs' Guides, Analyses, and Reviews
Computing Fabrics to refashion industry
By Erick Von Schweber and Linda Von Schweber
PC Week Online October 26, 1998 3:44 PM ET

Computing Fabrics will revolutionize IT, but they also portend major changes for the industry and its vendors. Some likely changes are enumerated below.

Related Stories
Computing's Next Wave
(in print and on-line)
This is the main story.
Distributed UNIX Soon May Be Woven into the NT Fabric
(in print and on-line)
Computing Fabrics to Refashion Industry
(on-line only)
The Technologies of Computing Fabrics
(on-line only)

SGI and Intel

It's uncertain what will ultimately happen to supercomputer vendors with the commoditization of supercomputing that Computing Fabrics will bring. With the advent of PCs, many makers of minicomputers went the way of the dodo. Other midtier systems vendors, such as Sequent Computer Systems Inc., managed to survive the onslaught of PC-based servers and the commoditization of the minicomputer market by exploiting commodity processors in their parallel designs.

Silicon Graphics Inc., by planning to offer systems that scale from 1 to more than 1,000 Intel Corp. Merced processors, is following an even stronger strategy. Its alliances with Intel and Microsoft Corp. should enable SGI to not only survive, but to thrive.

Besides this, vendors such as SGI/Cray possess far-reaching expertise that companies like Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. can't approach. Challenging computational problems remain unsolved, for lack of sufficient horsepower. The Department of Energy's supercluster at Los Alamos National Labs, which unites 48 SGI/Cray Origin 2000s of 128 processors each, is just the beginning.

Computing Fabrics presage the era of Petaflops computing, where systems will deliver one million billion floating-point operations per second, roughly 10 times the total networked processing power in the United States just 3 years ago.

Possessing the expertise for these grand-scale projects means a continued existence for supercomputer vendors in general and SGI in particular, but in the new era of Computing Fabrics, these vendors may begin to look more like super-system integrators and pioneers of enabling technologies, and less like system vendors.

To Intel, the early stages of Computing Fabrics will look like business as usual, with new markets and an expanding customer base. Intel's core business will be strengthened, because its general-purpose processors better exploit fabrics than do dedicated application-specific integrated circuits.

The same logic reinforces Microsoft Corp.'s position that a general-purpose operating system like Windows CE makes for more flexible embedded systems. As fabrics take hold and buses converge with networks, Intel might take steps to better exploit potential synergies between its system board, networking and microprocessor divisions. Just as it purchased Corollary for its 8-way Perfusion architecture, in time, Intel could acquire the networking and systems groups of SGI for its Computing Fabrics technologies.


Microsoft has quietly been conducting research in distributed operating systems, addressing the hard problems of distributed processing including support of a single Windows object space across numerous processors. This has yet to transform NT into an enterprise-class operating system, however, and no one, including Microsoft, is holding their breath.

As Intel-based Fabrics are announced, the pressure of the marketplace is sure to encourage Microsoft to acquire the requisite technology from a third party. SGI's Cellular Irix is a likely candidate, and Microsoft and SGI are in discussion on the possibility.

Sun Microsystems

What of Sun Microsystems, which remains committed to its noncommodity microprocessors? Although Sun has the distributed software infrastructure for a Computing Fabrics future, its hardware direction is not so well-adapted.

On the hardware side, Sun is trying to go it alone, with a processor architecture to be deployed from embedded systems up to super servers. However, Sun won't benefit from the economies of scale that those using Intel processors achieve, notably SGI and HP. Furthermore, Sun has neither a scalable interconnect story--it's using a single big, fast crossbar switch--nor a single system image that extends beyond 64 processors, due to Sun's use of SMP architecture.

It will be hard for Sun to compete against SGI's high-volume Intel processor, scalable architecture and modular Fabric. Increasingly, Sun will be pressured to either "go Intel" or partner with IBM and share its fabs, because SGI and others offer major competition in the enterprise space of database servers, data mining, decision support systems and Web/intranet hosting.

On the software side, however, Sun may well be holding four aces in Java, Jini, JAIN (Java Advanced Intelligent Networks) and JavaSpaces--distributed technologies for which Computing Fabrics are likely to stimulate great demand. Sun could well put together a Java-based competitor to Microsoft's Millennium, using Enterprise Java Beans for code mobility and CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) and Internet Inter-ORB Protocol for distribution transparency.


The investment in legacy software that only runs on the mainframe will not last forever. The power, cost savings, and ease of administration of Computing Fabrics will overshadow even the expense of redeveloping legacy applications.

Can IBM move into the Fabric space? It certainly possesses expertise in distributed systems, having debuted n-tier architectures in the early '80s, updated MVS systems to Parallel Sysplex, and invested R&D funds in projects such as T Spaces. It's more a question of management and marketing, and if IBM's move into Java is any indication, it may well be able to compete in the Fabric space, especially if it partners even more extensively with Sun. Make no mistake, however: This will be the IBM mainframe's final battlefield, up against the combined talents of Intel, Microsoft and SGI/Cray.

Network vendors

Vendors of network hardware and software are likely to enter the Computing Fabrics fold as well. Switches are likely to evolve to directly support the rich topologies of Fabrics as well as their extreme performance requirement for very low latencies and cache coherence.

Network operating systems may evolve into cellular operating systems. Taken together, this means that network vendors have an excellent opportunity to challenge systems vendors in the midsize to large systems market, a radical shift.

Software development

The ramifications of Computing Fabrics for applications and system software are significant. Current applications will be compatible with fabrics, but software will need to evolve to exploit the fluid system boundaries of fabrics.

DBMSes are likely to lead the way here, based on their utilization of both in-box parallelism and multisystem clustering. But even DBMSes will need to be further "exploded" into interoperable components that can more fully utilize the fabric.

To fully exploit fabrics and their fluid system boundaries, a rapprochement is needed between these vastly different programming formalisms. Microsoft's Millennium points to a partial solution, taking code developed along object-oriented lines and automatically distributing its components using a distributed object infrastructure running atop massively distributed clusters.

Logical-level models and views become increasingly important as data and processing are increasingly and dynamically distributed over the Fabric, in much the same way as the relational model satisfied the need for a unified logical view of data across disk farms. Such logical models will by necessity need to unify a wide variety of underlying systems, including COM, CORBA, and Java objects, relational and object DBMSes, Extensible Markup Language and HTML documents, multiple file systems, and varying directory structures.

Computing Fabrics are also likely to encourage, if not require, migration and adaptation of solutions across system levels. For example, distributed DBMS techniques may need to be adapted by cellular operating systems to maintain cache coherency across loosely coupled systems.

Erick Von Schweber is Chief Science Officer for Infomaniacs, a think tank in Sedona, Ariz specializing in technology convergence.. Linda Von Schweber is Chief Creative Officer for Infomaniacs. They can be contacted at or

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By Linda Von Schweber
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