Tapping A Virtual Goldmine

Published: December 13 2001

Category:Business, Engineering, Research, Technology

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Here’s a nice thought in these economic doldrums: The computer sitting idle at home while you’re at work could instead earn you some spare cash.

A University of Florida engineering professor is leading an effort to create a way to allow PC owners to sell their machines’ computing power online.

Michael Frank, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering, says millions of computers in people’s homes and offices spend hours doing little more than running screen savers. Meanwhile, scientists, corporations and public officials often need more computing power than they can afford.

A free system that allows PC owners to sell their personal machines’ processing power to these and other customers as needed online would benefit everyone, he says.

“There are markets for all kinds of resources, everything from electricity to grain,” Frank said. “The idea is to do the same thing with computers.”

Frank said more than 50 million Americans are connected to the Internet, yet their computers sit idle most of the time.

Meanwhile, scientists studying, say, global weather patterns or genetics often need access to massive amounts of computer processing and memory. Ditto companies such as the computer graphics firms responsible for movies such as “Shrek.” And public officials and news organizations need added computing power during emergencies, when tremendous increases in people seeking information slows or crashes their sites.

These and other groups may not have the money to invest in expensive supercomputers, especially when they may need the computing power only occasionally, Frank said. It would be far better if they could simply “buy” it online from the millions computer owners not using their full processing power.

As he described it, “Imagine that the collective computational power of millions of computers all over the world becomes a vast, liquid commodity, flowing like an ocean between continents, fluctuating up and down in price according to global needs and supply and demand.”

Pursuing an idea that he began working on as a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1990s, he and a group of about two dozen faculty and graduate students are trying to engineer this new approach.

They call it the Open Computation Exchange & Auctioning Network, or OCEAN.

The network’s foundation will be a software program freely available on the Web. The program will be “open source” – its source code will be available to anyone — so programmers can easily write applications. The hope is this will drive its spread among users, as occurred with Linux, the popular free operating system. “It has to be so easy to use and so simple that it grows and develops its own market in a kind of grass-roots way,” Frank said.

There is some precedent for “distributed computing” systems. For example, SETI@Home, based at the University of California at Berkeley, taps users’ personal computers to analyze radio signals in the search for extraterrestrial life. But Frank said OCEAN differs from these and other current systems in that it will not be limited to a specific application.

Graduate students at UF and the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School are working on the program now.

The technical hurdles are not minor. Ensuring people’s personal computers remain secure, even as their central processing units and hard drives are accessed via the Internet, is one issue. Another is creating a simple and safe accounting and billing system.

But Frank said building the system is more a matter of tailoring current technology than creating new technology. One master’s student, Mark Tobias, has already demonstrated the program on a prototype scale, he said. He is hopeful that the team will have a “beta,” or test version, ready by summer. The earliest public release date will be 2003, he said.

Assuming there is a healthy demand for the service, he estimated owners of up-to-date PCs might be able to earn $50 per month to “rent” their processing power. Some applications may require a permanent on-line connection, others only periodic uploads and downloads.

Frank cited the success of Napster, the music sharing software that soared in popularity before it was shut down, as an example of how quickly new systems can spread if they are easy and practical to use. “Napster was just to get free music,” he said. “Imagine if you could get free money.”




  • Michael Frank

Category:Business, Engineering, Research, Technology