Waste Not, Want Not

CIO Magazine
August 1, 2000
by John Edwards

EVERY DAY, HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of people turn on their computers-and then let them sit idle much of the time.

So says Adam L. Beberg, a 26-year-old computer scientist who is looking to put all of this wasted computing power to use. He wants to link underutilized PCs into distributed computing environments that can handle supercomputer-caliber tasks, such as weather forecasting or animating feature films. "The idea is to take computers that are sitting idle or wasting processing cycles on screen savers and turn them into a single supercomputer," says Beberg.

The concept isn't as exotic as it sounds. Now that most PCs are connected to the Internet-and ventures like Napster and Gnutella are linking computers via the Net for file sharing-getting people to run distributed computing software on their PCs in the background shouldn't be difficult. In fact, the SETI@home project has already convinced more than 2 million computer users to join in a search for possible extraterrestrial radio signals by having their machines analyze data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

That's not the only example, either. Back in 1997, Distributed.net, an organization founded by Beberg, used distributed computing technology to crack a series of complex encryption keys. In a demonstration designed to prove the futility of U.S. government restrictions on the exportation of cryptographic software, three different 56-bit keys were consecutively unraveled in 250 days, 40 days and under 24 hours as more people joined the project. The export restrictions have since been relaxed.

Distributed.net, thanks to its members, now has the combined processing power of more than 160,000 266-MHz Pentium II PCs. But Beberg has bigger plans. He's working on Cosm, a set of programming tools and protocols that will allow organizations to create their own distributed computing environments. "Companies such as pharmaceutical firms or movie producers will be able to hire people to participate in their projects," he says. Beberg is developing the technology through Mithral Communications and Design, a Minneapolis-based company he founded in 1995.

Beberg's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Several government and educational institutions, such as Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, are now working on their own distributed computing projects. Meanwhile, Porivo Technologies, a startup in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is planning to open a distributed computing Web portal that will allow computer users to view and select projects they would like to participate in. "We're following the ant colony analogy," says Sam Kirby, Porivo cofounder and vice president of marketing. "We're going to use millions of fairly unintelligent entities, working together to do very complex things."

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