/. Computers' Shelf Life Gets Livelier

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Dec 10 06:01:49 PST 2002


Computers' Shelf Life Gets Livelier
Gateway to Sell Harnessed Power of the PCs in Its Stores


Chief Technology Officer Bob Burnett hit on the networking plan while 
seeking ways to leverage Gateway's resources. (Val Hoeppner For The 
Washington Post)

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 10, 2002; Page E01

The next time you tap on a keyboard at a Gateway Country store, you might 
just be touching a piece of one of the world's most powerful 

Gateway Inc. plans to announce today that it has linked up the computers 
on display in its retail stores across the country to sell the combined 
processing power to corporate customers in need of some extra computing 

Shoppers shouldn't notice any difference. The floor models will continue 
to run demos of spreadsheets, games and digital music programs. But in the 
background, if all goes according to plan, the machines will be grinding 
away at tasks such as drug design or geoscience research.

Gateway is the latest company to experiment with a concept called grid 
computing, in which processing power is bought and sold just like 
electricity and natural gas. Technology companies big and small are 
betting that more and more computing services will be delivered this way 
in the future, as businesses and organizations seek to make more efficient 
use of their computer resources.

Major tech players, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., 
believe the technology is on the the verge of becoming a viable business. 
International Business Machines Corp. announced plans in October to spend 
$10 billion on what it calls "computing on demand."

The basic attraction to many companies is the idea that collections of 
$1,500 workstations can be converted into virtual supercomputers.

Jaguar Cars Ltd. has experimented with the concept to create new car and 
driving simulations. Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. uses it to 
design its next generations of processors. For struggling computer maker 
Gateway Inc., it could be a new way to generate revenue.

For the concept to reach its potential, there must be greater 
standardization among computing systems, experts said. Proponents must 
also overcome concerns about the security of data.

"There's a huge confidence level you have to reach with customers before 
they're willing to turn their technological life over to you," said Barry 
Jaruzelski, head of Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.'s global computers and 
electronics practice.

At the moment, companies typically buy enough desktop computers and 
servers to take care of the heaviest computing jobs during peak periods. 
In off-peak times, much of that power is wasted -- the conventional wisdom 
is that companies typically use only about 25 percent of their total 
computing resources.

"If a computer is idle and you don't use it, the computing power you 
generated is lost -- just like if you generate electrical power and you 
don't use it, it's gone," said Dan Reed, director of the National Center 
for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

Organizations that managed to link their computers report noticeable 
improvement. In Alexandria, for example, the American Diabetes Association 
has used grid software to increase the speed of a computer program called 
Archimedes, developed by Kaiser Permanente, designed to test the effect of 
different levels of health care and services in a community.

According to the association's chief scientist and chief medical officer, 
Richard Kahn, it once took four to five days for the program to run. This 
year, the organization linked the 250 computers in its Alexandria office 
together with grid computing technology and reduced that time to a couple 
of hours

For the time being, analysts are undecided about whether Gateway, or its 
partner United Devices Inc., which makes grid computing software, will 
attract many customers.

"I am pretty much withholding judgment," said Christopher Willard, analyst 
at IDC. "There is currently not enough data one way or another to tell if 
this will be a revenue generator."

In its favor, Willard said, is the fact that Gateway already has thousands 
of computers sitting largely idle on display shelves (the program would 
not affect PCs sold to consumers). "They have nothing to lose and may have 
something to gain," he said.

Gateway has 272 Gateway Country stores. With 7,800 floor model PCs, each 
with an average processing power of 2 gigahertz, Gateway says it has about 
14 teraflops of computing power (a teraflop is 1 trillion operations per 
second). By comparison, the 10 most powerful computers in the world range 
from three to about 36 teraflops.

The advantage, for customers, is the price. For an introductory price of 
15 cents per computer hour, plus set-up fees, Gateway is making the power 
of supercomputing available to companies that might not be able to afford 
it otherwise. The computer maker has not said how much it will charge when 
that introductory period is over, other than that it will cost about what 
a company would spend to maintain such a network -- without having to buy 
all the hardware.

"Gateway Processing on Demand," the computer maker's name for the new 
program, is the brainchild of Gateway's chief technology officer, Bob 

About a year ago, Burnett downloaded a couple of software programs onto 
his personal computers that seek to tap surplus computing power: SETI at Home 
and the United Devices Cancer Research Project. The two programs use 
concepts of grid computing to allow people with Web-connected computers to 
donate their computer's spare processing power to causes they are 
interested in. These two projects involve scanning telescope readouts for 
possible extraterrestrial contact and seeking cures for cancer.

Burnett was trying to figure out ways to leverage Gateway's existing 
resources when the idea of networking that power in a similar manner -- 
and charge for it -- came to him.

"The stores are basically closed from nine at night to nine in the 
morning," he said. Even during the day, computer utilization is 
"essentially zero as well. The things you're doing at retail don't tax a 
processor very hard."

Gateway's service does not have any customers yet, although a London-based 
drug research firm, Inpharmatica Ltd., participated in a trial version of 
the program earlier this year. The company requires high-performance 
hardware to search chemical combinations for potential new drugs.

"We are a drug discovery company, not an IT shop. We would much rather 
employ people to do innovative analysis of the data than spend time 
building computers," said Pat Leach, Inpharmatica's chief information 

Leach said his company was impressed with the results of the trial and 
indicated that Inpharmatica might become a customer if the company's 
computing needs grow beyond the equipment it has already purchased.

"When it comes to it, we will do a simple commercial cost-benefit 
analysis," he said. "If the Gateway service is cheaper than owning the kit 
and competitive with other offerings we will go with it." 

-- Eugen* Leitl <a href="http://leitl.org">leitl</a>
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