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
By Erick Von Schweber and Linda Von Schweber
PC Week Online October 26, 1998 3:44 PM ET

Cover Story

A major new wave in computing--one that we believe promises within the next five years to deliver almost limitless cheap computing power and to change the balance of power among technology vendors--is in sight.
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)
The first ripples are beginning to appear. Major vendors, including Intel Corp., Silicon Graphics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp., are quietly collaborating on plans to create a new type of commercial systems architecture--one we call Computing Fabrics.

It will combine inexpensive microprocessors from the PC world with technologies from the world of technical computing, where massively parallel supercomputers already bring together the power of hundreds of processors in one machine.

Computing Fabrics will take these supercomputer architectures a step further. The new architecture will distribute the power of these massively parallel computers across corporate campuses by erasing the distinctions between networks and computer architectures. It will link thousands of processors and storage devices into a single system while maintaining latencies similar to those of today's multiprocessing servers.

The result for corporations prepared to take advantage of Computing Fabrics will be huge amounts of cheap computing power that will allow for applications such as massive data warehouses and advanced, distributed supply chain management systems. Such products aren't possible with today's client/server and network computing architectures.

A Computing Fabric will consist of nodes--packages of processors, memory and peripherals--linked together by interconnects that allow thousands of processors to communicate. Within the Fabrics are regions of nodes and interconnects that are so tightly coupled they appear as single nodes. These are cells.

Tight coupling within cells is achieved with hardware, software or both. Cells in the Fabric are then loosely coupled with each other and the Fabric as a whole. Each cell can grow or shrink in a dynamic fashion, meaning that nodes and links can be added and removed.

Fluid system boundaries are the essence of Computing Fabrics. The many processors in a Computing Fabric can come together as a tightly coupled system one moment. They can become loosely coupled with other systems in the Fabric the next moment. Then they can dissipate and reassemble, essentially allocating processing cycles on demand.

Flexibility like that is not possible with today's commercial mainframes, SMP systems and even nonuniform memory systems.

Key vendors are already working hard to make Computing Fabrics a reality. SGI, for example, is at the crest of the wave. The company recently announced plans to move all of its systems to Intel processors--even its largest SGI Cray supercomputers. That will be a first step in the fusion of high-performance, massively parallel technical computing and inexpensive commodity hardware.

And it's just the beginning. SGI, augmented by its Cray Research Inc. acquisition, is applying its expertise in distributed, modular systems to the lower-cost commercial computing space.

SGI officials said the company plans in two years to merge its largest shared-memory multiprocessor server, the Origin line, with the SGI Cray T3E, a massively parallel machine that interconnects more than 2,000 Alpha processors. The merged system will be called SN1 (Scalable Node 1).

Although SN1 will initially ship with a MIPS Technologies Inc. R14000, the final entry in the MIPS processor line, it will be field-upgradable to Intel's IA-64 Merced processors. With its superscalar architecture and large instruction caches--what HP and Intel call Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing--the IA-64 will be perfect for large multiprocessors. With Intel's backing, the IA-64 is also destined to become a high-volume commodity processor.

Total integration of massive technical architectures and lower-cost commodity components will occur by 2002, when SGI will merge its Cray SVI (Scalable Vector 1) supercomputer with the SN1 to create the SN2.

Computing Fabrics will emerge as supercomputer technologies such as SN1 and SN2 make their way into the commercial computing space. These technologies include modularly scalable interconnect technologies, such as SGI's Craylink; distributed shared-memory architectures, such as SGI's ccNUMA (Non-Uniform Memory Access) and Sequent Computer Systems Inc.'s NUMA-Q; and high-performance hypernetworks, such as those based on the High Performance Parallel Interface-6400 ISO standard.

Also critical will be a cellular operating system that can coordinate processors linked in a distributed Fabric. SGI is working on such an operating system, Cellular Irix, which is due in the first quarter of 2000.

Microsoft has expressed interest in Cellular Irix's development and may, we believe, license it and integrate elements into its Windows NT kernel. Microsoft is also working on its own implementation of Computing Fabrics in its Millennium distributed object project, which will take advantage of the Virtual Interface Architecture clustering model being developed by Microsoft, Compaq Computer Corp. and Intel.

Initially, Computing Fabrics' architecture boundaries will be static, defined manually at system startup. Computing Fabrics with fluid system boundaries will evolve over time. Eventually, systems such as Cellular Irix will enable reconfiguration as a dynamic system property, alterable at run-time.

Ultimately, Cellular Irix will evolve to support system-driven reconfiguration based on workloads and predefined policies. These elements differentiate Computing Fabrics from clusters of bus- and switch-based multiprocessor systems with their inherently rigid system boundaries.

The inexpensive processing power produced by Computing Fabrics will create a market where processing cycles are purchased as needed and are available from a variety of sources. Processing cycles available for applications will be offered by Internet service providers and via central office switches, cable head ends and junction boxes.

But Computing Fabrics won't just mean more available processing. They'll also mean better utilization of whatever processing is in place. With Computing Fabrics, the total compute cycles within offices, schools, labs, factories and neighborhoods may for the first time be exploited, since the processors and memory on their Fabrics will rarely sit idle. Management will move beyond total cost of ownership, looking increasingly at overall exploitation of cycles and the incremental return on distributing new cycles.

Computing Fabrics will also make it easier to develop and deploy distributed systems. Today, development of distributed systems using technologies such as Distributed Computing Environment, Common Object Request Broker Architecture and Distributed Component Object Model takes months or even years. An inherently distributed architecture such as Computing Fabrics will shrink that development time to weeks, days or hours. Ultimately, development and deployment of distributed systems could become a real-time process, with the emphasis on finding the desired information, software and processing resources on the Fabric and having them properly configured.

The virtually unlimited computing power and distributed nature of Computing Fabrics will also permit applications that aren't possible today. Data warehouse applications that access online transaction processing information will finally be possible. And Computing Fabrics architectures, which speak interoperability as a first language, will enable tighter integration between supply chain partners as Fabrics span enterprise boundaries. Virtual corporations will emerge as sufficient amounts of inexpensive processing power become available for collaboration on tasks such as advanced design, materials science, and genetics and drug research.

It will also be easier for corporations to cozy up to consumers who have the computational power of the Fabric at their command and are no longer limited by the capabilities of their isolated home PCs.

The swells that will eventually become the Computing Fabrics wave are just beginning to form. But large organizations, technology vendors and forward-thinking companies should immediately begin to consider Computing Fabrics in their analyses and planning. The choices companies make today on partnerships, system development methodologies and standards, and even building and campus wiring, will have a substantial impact on their ability to exploit Fabrics and reap the rewards of this new era of computing. Erick Von Schweber is chief science officer for Infomaniacs. Linda Von Schweber is chief creative officer for Infomaniacs. They can be contacted at

Copyright (c) 1998 Ziff-Davis Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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


Copyright © 1998 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company

Infomaniacs Home

To Contact the authors send mail to
Infomaniacs home is

Updated Dec 2, 1998



By Linda Von Schweber
& Erick Von Schweber

Copyright 1996-2004 by Infomaniacs. All Rights Reserved.
Updated May 28, 2003