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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Turbo-charge your computer
DOT.LIFE - how tech changes life, every Monday
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

The internet is evolving into a far more powerful beast that could turbo-charge your computer, without you even noticing.

Cabling behind servers
Plug into the computing muscle of big companies
Behind the scenes, vast networks of computers are connected over the internet, creating a massive reservoir of power that can be turned on and off just like water.

At the moment, most of these networks, known as grid technology, are mostly in the hands of scientists.

But experts predict that before we know it, this sort of technology will become as pervasive as the net itself.

"This will become part of everyday life over the next couple of years," says Tom Hawk, General Manager of Grid Computing for computer giant IBM.

"Grid technology takes the internet and exploits it more fully, lashing together millions of devices online.

"The net allowed computers to talk together. Grid computing allows computers to work together, not just communicate together."

Computing muscle

The idea of using lots of machines together is not new. In the past it has been called distributed computing.

IBM's Tom Hawk
The internet took 20 years to be taken seriously by business. By comparison the grid is happening far more rapidly
Tom Hawk, IBM
The Seti screensaver experience was an early example of using the spare capacity of home PCs to search for alien life.

Grid technology takes advantage of advances in computer science and the internet to take distributed computing out of the lab and into the mainstream.

At the moment, most of the computer power across the world lies dormant and is simply going to waste.

Businesses have dozens of computers that are used for little more than writing documents, sending e-mails and browsing the web.

Yet buried inside those machines is a well of untapped power. What if you plug into that computing muscle to do convoluted calculations, handle complex 3D designs or play the latest video games?

Fast forward

As with the early days of the net, academics and researchers are once again leading the way.

But the difference this time round is the pace at which the technology is making the leap from the university to the High Street.

Joystick
Grid technology is powering online games
"The internet took 20 years to be taken seriously by business," explains Mr Hawk, "by comparison the grid is happening far more rapidly."

In Switzerland, scientists recently switched on the first phase of a vast computing net designed to help researchers figure out how the Universe began.

The project by the Cern labs in Geneva taps into university computers in 12 countries, offering scientists access to a vast pool of processing power from their desktops.

But you do not have to be a top physicist looking into the Big Bang to have this kind of might at your fingertips.

By 2005, any of the 200,000 university students in China will be able to exploit a computer network capable of trillions of calculations per second.

A student would not necessarily know they are using the grid. What they will notice is that a class by video runs smoothly onscreen or that a complicated computation takes minutes rather than hours.

Time-saving

Grid technology is fast becoming a reality. Earlier this year, scientists researching drugs to fight the smallpox virus crammed 39,000 years of computing power into just six months by using donated machines in more than 190 countries.

"This represents massive progress in thwarting the threat of smallpox but also a significant opportunity for all life science research," says Oxford University Professor Graham Richards, who led the research.

"This resource has the potential to find leads against both bio-terror and disease agents in a fraction of the time science is accustomed to."

In a sign of how the technology is moving out of the lab, grid computing is being used to transform the internet into a high-performance games engine.

The Butterfly Grid uses software to automatically allocate idle computing resources when lots of players join a particular game.

Mr Hawk predicts this sort of technology will become commonplace across the net.

"It will just happen, it will just be there," he says. "In a few years, it won't be called grid computing, it will just be computing."




SEE ALSO:
Computing net promises vast power
05 Oct 03  |  Technology
Grid helps science go sky-high
02 May 02  |  Science/Nature
Computing power on tap
02 Aug 01  |  Science/Nature
Powering up the Grid
28 Jun 00  |  Science/Nature
Huge computing power goes online
30 Sep 03  |  Technology


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