On Wednesday of last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Sun’s Aisling MacRunnels, senior director of utility computing at Sun and discuss the state of their utlity computing – grid, if you prefer – efforts over at network.com. One of the questions they posed to me during the session was whether or not I’d signed up for an account. The answer to that question was no, I had not. I’ve walked around the site, checked out some of the examples, but never signed up for an account. Why not? Because it’s not entirely clear to me what I would do with it if I had it.
If I was signing up for a plain old hosting account, I can think of a dozen or more things I could do with it off the top of my head: run a blog, run an email server, run a website, run a stats package, run a game server, run a wiki, run forums, and I think you get the idea. When I think about what I’d use a grid for, however, I’m distinctly uncreative. I can’t think of anything obvious that I’d employ it for. Oh, I could probably use it, along with distcc, to farm out my Gentoo compiles to a much larger and more capable network, but is the hassle of getting that set up more than its worth? I haven’t found out because I haven’t taken the time to figure out how and why I’d do that.
What is my point here – that grids serve no useful purpose? Hardly. What I’m trying to point out, instead, is that with new offerings comes additional responsibility with respect to education. It’s not enough to tell me how powerful, secure or flexible the grid is – I need to be educated on how it’s relevant to me specifically. Preferably with a wiki that would offer a HowTo style set of instructions that would let me get up and running. What are customers using it for? What can I try quickly that will demonstrate the value of the offering?  How, in other words, do you begin transitioning from a niche offering that appeals to climatologists or actuaries to an extension of a developers workspace, on demand hardware? Education, it seems to me.
I can say this with some authority because speaking candidly, we at RedMonk are faced with precisely the same problem. We work so differently than some of our competitors that half our challenge is explaining just what we can do for customers, current or potential. We have to spend a considerable amount of time getting customers in the mindset that it’s more about asking what we don’t do (i.e. commissioned whitepapers) than what we do. How many analyst firms are about driving you web traffic? But ultimately, we can’t ask customers to answer those questions themselves; at the end of the day, we need to do a much better job of educating customers on the myriad things we can do for them in the marketing, community building, networking, product strategy, etc areas. That’s one of the things I’m hoping to address in the long awaited RedMonk 3.0 site (I see an FAQ in our future).
So to the folks at Sun Grid, don’t feel bad – you’re in good company
 The “create a spoken-word mp3 audio file from your text input” thing isn’t that appealing – I could already do that here – but speech to text? *that* would be pretty cool.