• Technology
  • The Economist

Computing Power on Tap

A look at the most ambitious attempt yet to combine millions of computers seamlessly around the world -- to make processing power available on demand anywhere, rather like electrical power.

One solution is to pay somebody to solve these problems. In 1997 a company called Entropia was set up in San Diego, California, to broker the processing power of idle computers. Within two years, the company had 30,000 volunteer computers and a total processing speed of one teraflop (trillion floating-point operations) per second — comparable with many a supercomputer. Entropia is using this power for a range of applications, such as its “FightAidsAtHome” project, which evaluates research that could lead to potential AIDS drugs. Parabon, another processing broker, has a “Compute-Against-Cancer” project, which analyses patients’ responses to chemotherapy. For processing-power brokers, aiming at the medical business is a wise move. Bioinformatics tools and services are expected to grow into a multibillion-dollar market over the next five years.

But overnight fortunes are not going to be made from broking processing power. Ian Foster, a Grid expert at Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, cautions that “the business models that underlie this new industry are still being debugged.” United Devices, a company in Austin, Texas, which was started by David Anderson (who is the brains behind SETI@home), plans to offer incentives such as frequent-flier miles and sweepstakes to encourage membership of its commercial peer-to-peer projects. One broking service, Popular Power, has already disappeared and others are going the same way.

One challenge facing commercial P2P brokers, which will haunt commercial applications of the Grid as well, is philanthropy. In April, Intel launched a philanthropic peer-to-peer program that lets PC owners give their excess processor time to a good cause. The first software package that can be downloaded under this program, developed by United Devices in collaboration with a consortium of cancer research centres, is aimed at optimising the molecular structure of possible drugs for fighting leukaemia. While this may be good promotion for United Devices, it remains to be seen how many of these brokerage firms can turn a profit.

Safety in Numbers

If the P2P data-processing paradigm is the equivalent of assembling a ragtag army of poorly trained conscripts, the other end of the computing spectrum is a commando unit made up of a tightly knit set of PCs dedicated to solving a single problem. One of the pioneering efforts in this field was called Beowulf, after the hero of the legendary poem who slays two man-eating monsters. The original Beowulf, built in 1994 by Thomas Sterling and Don Becker at the United Space Research Association in Maryland, was a cluster of 16 off-the-shelf processors lined together by Ethernet cables. Its success inspired many others to build quick-and-dirty number crunchers out of cheap components — thus slaying the twin monsters of supercomputing, time and money.

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