Cyber View: Wholesale Computation; November 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Paul Wallich; 1 Page(s)
The fastest supercomputers in the known universe are virtually free. All you need to beat the performance of a $50-million, massively parallel research machine is a little software and some way to convince 1 percent of the people on the Internet to run it. Unlike a dedicated supercomputer, which generally requires special housing and a staff of attendants to keep it going while it falls rapidly behind the state of the art, the network equivalent increases in power regularly as people upgrade their Pcs. And when you're done using the virtual supercomputer, you can stop paying for it. Little wonder, then, that more than a dozen startups should have appeared in the past year, all trying to scoop up spare computing cycles and sell them to the highest bidder.
The best-known example of virtual supercomputing is the volunteer SETI@ Home project, a search for radio signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence; it has attracted more than two million participants. Following in the footsteps of codebreaking ventures such as distributed.net, SETI@Home can run as a screensaver; then it is active only when a machine is not doing anything else. Each chunk of radio-telescope data can be processed independently, so machines don't need to communicate with one another, only with a central server. Other embarrassingly parallel problems include DNA pattern matching, Monte Carlo financial modeling, computer-graphics rendering and, appropriately enough, Web site¿performance testing. Genome applications alone, says United Devices CEO Ed Hubbard, could soak up all the Net's spare computing power for the next 50 years.