A new body dedicated to encouraging the take-up of grid computing - called the Enterprise Grid Alliance - has been set up by Oracle, EMC, HP and Sun, among others. The Alliance aims to produce specifications that will allow customers to mix and match products from different suppliers.

Among the initial board members are also NEC, Cisco and Novell and it is open to any organisation, including customers, for $5,000 per year, said Donald Deutsch, an Oracle vice president who is serving as president of the alliance.

One analyst applauded the effort, saying it could benefit large enterprises, which typically have a mix of hardware and software in their datacenters. But the magnitude of the task, and the fact that two of the industry's biggest players - IBM and Microsoft - are not yet on board, means the alliance has its work cut out, said Dan Kusnetzky, VP of systems software research at IDC.

The goal, explained on the Alliance's website, is to produce a set of specifications that will allow grid products from various vendors to interoperate. It will also test suites to help customers identify interoperable products, and study new methods of paying for hardware and software, since traditional pricing methods are hard to apply in a grid environment, Deutsch said.

Grid computing involves linking groups of computers and storage devices together so those resources can be allocated dynamically as needed. For example, when demand for a payroll application surges at the end of the month, enterprises should be able to shift the workload from that application onto additional servers, and move it off again when the peak load has passed.

Most of the big vendors have been promoting the grid model, promising to help customers reduce IT costs by using resources more efficiently. But their products don't always work together, causing headaches for customers who use, for example, Oracle's database software, HP's management software and EMC's storage gear.

The work of the alliance could prove useful for customers, but it won't be easy for a large group of vendors to agree on common standards, IDC's Kusnetzky said. What's more, the alliance eventually will need to get IBM and Microsoft on board if it hopes to succeed.

IBM is still deciding whether to join, a spokesman for the company said, declining further comment. Microsoft was approached, according to Deutsch, but is also undecided. The software giant declined to comment on its future plans.

Any specifications produced by the alliance will be released on an open, royalty-free basis, Deutsch said. The alliance offers various levels of membership, ranging from $50,000 for "sponsors" who hold seats on the board, to $5,000 for "associates" who attend working group meetings but cannot vote. "You have to pay to play," Deutsch said.

Oracle first proposed a commercial grid consortium in September, and the Enterprise Grid Alliance is the fruit of those efforts. In proposing the idea, Oracle raised the hackles of groups already working on grid standards, most notably the Global Grid Forum. "There was some angst initially, but we've tried to assure (the other groups) that we will work with them," Deutsch said.

The Global Grid Forum has a broader focus that includes academic and scientific computing, while the Enterprise Grid Alliance is focussed squarely on the datacenter, Deutsch said. "We are not interested in collecting unused CPU cycles from widely distributed systems, or in academic and research computing," he said.

The alliance will work with existing standards groups and adopt their specifications where possible. A representative from the Global Grid Forum said it supports the work of the Enterprise Grid Alliance so long as it makes a genuine effort to use existing standards.

The alliance is in the process of setting up five working groups to report back in six months. They are working on areas such as a common API for provisioning systems in a grid environment; a common security mechanism; and a new model for billing customers using grid computing. "Now that you have these flexible, scalable, redeployable resources, how do you charge back for that kind of computing?" Deutsch asked.