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@Home with Grid Computing

Monday, 22 September 2008 — by

The ubiquity of computing is such that on occasion, we’re almost at the point where we’re no longer aware that we’re even using a computer at all. Suddenly, computers start appearing everywhere in almost everything, even your washing machine and refrigerator — but what are the benefits to ubiquitous computer power?

Right now, if you’re a PC user, there’s a pretty good chance your computer has been incorporated into a variant of a Grid Computing network, without you even knowing it. How? Most likely as a result of your Microsoft Windows computer being compromised and taken control of by someone else, who will use your computer, along with several hundred more, to send unsolicited emails, compromise other computers, steal personal information or attack web servers, among other things.

More benign and beneficial uses of Grid Computing would be SETI@Home, which: “is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).”

Expect many, many more such initiatives to emerge, especially in the search for medical advancements. In fact, it’s my belief that in time, Grid Computing will become as ubiquitous as computers themselves, many of which may even be backed by several governments.

This grid won’t be tied to physical cables, either. As the number of mobile devices begins to rise, they will out-number their desk-bound brethren. And wireless networks will probably be the busiest of them all, if not the greatest contributer in terms of mass of data per device.

For now, however, the computational power of mobile devices doesn’t come cheap; because of their limited battery lives, their processing power is often at a premium.

But what if PCs and mobile devices aren’t the only computers in town?

Domestic appliances and household Grid Computing

As a kid, I always wanted to be a programmer. I’m not sure why, but I imagine it’s something to do with the power to control my computer. As I sat there, this 10 year-old child worked his way through a very basic book on Basic and managed to create small, mostly useless programs.

The purpose of all this endeavor seems unclear now, but this appetite for programming was to resurface some years later, when as a business man, this 26 year-old needed to differentiate himself from his competitors. In doing so, PHP became his programming language of choice.

But I do remember that book on Basic. One of the sections had this little illustration of a washing machine being instructed to do something by a computer. I’ll always remember that cartoon drawing, because it sowed a seed in my mind, which to this day is probably the reason I’m so interested in knowing how things work and how different things can come together in unexpected ways.

I suppose it makes perfect sense that the washing machine and the tumble dryer should be likely candidates for Grid Computing, if of a domestic slant:

“There is no reason why the concept of distributed computing, or a Grid network, cannot be applied to lesser computers, such as those found in domestic and office devices, other than PCs and iPhones. Indeed, the researchers explain the idea of Grid Computing has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years because it essentially has no limits.”

Indeed, if unexpected quarters is the theme for Grid Computing, then using a computers’ GPU (Graphical Processing Unit) for medical research is as unusual a place as you might imagine:

“A team of researchers at Michigan Technological University is harnessing the computing muscle behind the leading video games to understand the most intricate of real-life systems.

Led by Roshan D’Souza, the group has supercharged agent-based modeling, a powerful but computationally massive forecasting technique, by using graphic processing units (GPUs), which drive the spectacular imagery beloved of video gamers. In particular, the team aims to model complex biological systems, such as the human immune response to a tuberculosis bacterium.”

Novel though these ideas are, they also play a vitally important role in the future of computing. Also, this kind of thinking is part of a growing trend, one where we look to make the maximum use of the resources we have, before starting from scratch, which is resource intensive.

It is entirely possible that future computers will incorporate components that are “Grid aware”, allowing them to be employed by other computers when their host computer has little or no need of them at that time, in the same way that the current crop of data processing Grid Computing systems like SETI do right now.

With the uptake of methodologies like OpenGL, which help simplify the task of controlling GPUs, similar systems could emerge for less obvious computer components, or even specific portions of the main microprocessor itself. Indeed, most modern computers either include multiple processors, or microprocessors with several “cores”, which offer an even greater potential for ad hoc Grid Computing.

Further to this, if your home or office has one or more computers, then Grid Computing could be a life line for those who frequently process large amounts of data, which their local network would easily accommodate.

Given a great enough need, time and a healthy helping of lateral thinking, Grid Computing could well be the next big thing, releasing a new and untold computational potential not just around the Internet, but around your home or office, too…

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David Bradley → Monday, 22 September 2008 @ 14:42 BDT

Grid computing most certainly is the next big thing. It’s what CERN expects to use for analysing the data from the LHC (once they fix their fridges and get things fired up again). I’ve been writing about various Grid applications, middleware and all the attendant computer engineering for the last few years as part of the work I do for one of the major funders in the UK for the various eScience projects. Give it a few years and the word Grid will be as ubiquitous as the word Web is now.

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