DISTRIBUTED COMPUTING: USING EXCESS COMPUTER POWER

July 21, 2000

COMMERCIAL NEWS

San Diego, CA — Let’s face it. Most of us own far more computer than we need, and even the heaviest power users don’t keep their PCs at work 24 hours a day. So what if that unused time and power on our PCs could be combined with other surplus power from around the world to do some really heavy-duty computing?

Andrew Park reports that it’s been happening for more than a year already thanks to SETIhome, an experimental program that about 2.1 million people have downloaded and used to donate their idle computing muscle to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Now several companies, including a newly-minted startup based in Austin, are trying to turn this idea known as distributed computing – which up to now has only been tried in nonprofit experiments such as SETIhome – into real Earth-bound businesses that resell those untapped resources for a profit. It’s based on the notion that computers are generally underused and that computer users will be interested in donating their extra computing power to good or interesting causes that crunch a lot of data, such as the search for a new cancer drug or patterns in the human genome.

“The delta between what they have and what they use is pretty large,” said Ed Hubbard, chief executive and co-founder of Austin’s United Devices Inc. “It’s a very new thing. No one really understands yet what turning the fabric of the Internet into a resource will do.”

With chip companies pushing processor speeds ahead of most processor needs every few months, there’s plenty of excess power in homes, schools and offices. Hubbard realized that this last year when he saw the success of SETIhome, which assembled enough computer power in its first month to achieve a teraflop, or one trillion operations per second.

In February, Hubbard left his product marketing job at Dell Computer Corp. combined with other surplus power from around the world to do some really heavy-duty computing? It’s been happening for more than a year already thanks to SETIhome, an experimental program that about 2.1 million people have downloaded and used to donate their idle computing muscle to the search for extraterrestrial lifeintelligence.

“When we started, we were pretty much working from 20/20 hindsight,” said Jikku Venkat, vice president of engineering, referring to Anderson’s involvement.

But they are not even the first to have the idea. An Alabama-based company known as distributed.net and San Francisco startup Popular Power Inc. are pursuing similar strategies.

Despite the success of SETIhome, many are skeptical that there is enough demand for distributed computing to build a business. But the entrepreneurs say they believe there are plenty of companies and organizations that need the capability of a supercomputer but don’t want to invest in one. They will see the value of breaking their projects into small jobs that can be sent to individual PCs and servers in packets over a network, completed and sent back in a short period of time.

“I think it’s people who have an enormous budget for building up supercomputer resources and upgrading them and maintaining them,” said Marc Hedlund, founder of Popular Power, whose last job was heading the Internet unit of LucasFilm. “They certainly recognize that they can’t go on spending as much money as they do without running into some serious limitations, and this seems to be a way of getting around this.”

Both United Devices and Popular Power say they will look for customers among companies that perform testing on the quality of Internet sites and biotechnology firms that need big computing power to do genomic research and drug discovery. Popular Power is also looking to financial institutions that use supercomputers to do complex analysis and companies that generate intensive graphics on computers. Both are also planning to give away some of the power that they take from individuals to pro bono or nonprofit projects meant to benefit the public.

The proof, however, will be in the numbers of computer users the companies can persuade to download their programs. United Devices, which will release the test version of its program this month, expects to have hundreds of thousands of downloads by year’s end, but it is still working on creating incentives to attract them. Distributed.net has tried sweepstakes, and Popular Power is talking about offering discounts on Internet service or sales at e-commerce sites.

Distributed computing companies will also have to reassure users that their privacy will be protected and that the networks are secure, no small challenges. But if they can get the individuals on board, the growth of broadband should help make it easier to tap into users’ computers in the future.

“People are very much interested in being a part of something that’s larger than what they can do themselves,” Popular Power’s Hedlund said. “I think that projects that will do really well are ones that involve the user in what’s going on.”

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