Hewlett-Packard has launched a range of utility computing services aimed at sysadmins looking to deal with internal fluctuations in demand for IT.

HP's new Infrastructure Provisioning Service (IPS) and Application Provisioning Service (APS) provide extra computing power to businesses that don't wish to deploy servers just to handle temporary surges in demand, said Brian Fowler, utility services global director for HP.

Utility computing is a much-discussed but still-emerging concept in data-centre computing. The idea is to allow customers to tap into a pool of computing resources hosted by a provider such as HP. IBM and Sun Microsystems are also developing similar services.

Some customers, such as animation houses like PDI/Dreamworks, face cyclical demand for computing resources tied to certain events, like the release of an upcoming movie. In the past, these companies would have to purchase and maintain sufficient computing resources to handle those peaks in demand, but that capacity would sit idle most of the time, Fowler said.

HP's new services allow customers to send their data for processing in HP data centres in Paris and Houston, said Norman Lindsey, architect of utility computing services. The data can be compressed and encrypted for transport over the Internet, or larger data sets can be physically mailed to those HP centres, he said.

With the basic IPS, customers can choose the type of HP server that will process their data, Fowler said. Basic processing on 32-bit processors from Intel costs US$0.55 per processor per hour, while servers based on Intel's Itanium processor are also available for $1.50 per processor per hour. Servers based on AMD's 64-bit chips or Intel's 64-bit x86 processors are priced in between those two endpoints, he said.

Customers can also choose to have HP manage grid computing software or compilers that will help process their data with the IPS+ offering. Companies such as Platform Computing, United Devices and PathScale will provide software for this service.

The APS offering has HP managing application software, such as its APS for computer-aided engineering, for its customers, Fowler said. Customers that need to use sophisticated applications for managing fluid dynamics, for example, can use this service to process their data and produce the complicated models they need, he said.

Dreamworks has been working with HP on utility computing services for about three years, said Mike Kiernan, head of systems infrastructure for PDI/Dreamworks, the Northern California animation arm of the Dreamworks movie studio. Computer-generated movies such as Shrek 2 and Madagascar were created using early versions of HP's flexible computing services, he said.

PDI/Dreamworks faces strict production deadlines, and HP's services allow Dreamworks' artists to take advantage of additional computing resources to make sure they get the color or movement of characters exactly right, Kiernan said. Without the extra capacity, PDI/Dreamworks would have to reallocate computing resources dedicated to future films to handle the present problem, delaying the production of upcoming films, he said.

Another problem at PDI/Dreamworks is building the cooling systems and power supplies needed to run a modern data centre, Kiernan said. In some cases, there isn't any more room for air-conditioning equipment within server rooms, limiting the number of servers it can install. HP's services allow the animators to add computing resources as needed and let HP deal with cooling and power issues, he said.

The IPS and IPS+ offerings are available immediately, while the APS offering will become available in the first half of next year, Fowler said.

HP has also launched the Flexible Computing Club, which allows businesses to experiment with HP's utility computing services. Potential customers sign up for a pilot program that allows them to test their data on 20 processors for 48 hours. If they sign up for the service within 90 days of that pilot, the $5,000 fee is waived for the first year, Fowler said. HP helps these customers assess their requirements and tailor their applications for the service, Fowler said.