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Making Your Computers Earn Their Way

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The New York Stock Exchange recently announced it was exploring renting out its massive computer bank during off hours, which in their case is most of the time. It makes a lot of sense. Like many businesses the NYSE has a fortune tied up in equipment designed to handle a massive peak load that largely sits idle during off hours. The NYSE is just one of many corporations to decide that it didn't make economic sense to let such valuable resources sit idle for so much of the time.

The chances are that your company also is letting a substantial investment in computers sit idle overnight and on weekends, too. This doesn't have to be the case. One way or another, these assets can be made to generate a return on investment during idle hours.

These days businesses have two major options, rent time on their computers, or give it away to non-profits for the publicity value (and the good it does). Over the next decade a third option will probably develop, allowing groups of businesses to initiate participate in R&D specifically designed to help those in their industry.

Cloud Source vs. Crowd Source
There are two fundamentally different ways of sharing your computer over the Internet. The first, and oldest way, lets people use your computers as virtually their own and able to run their applications and data. This is currently known as cloud sourcing, and is nearly always offered as a commercial service. Crowd sourcing, on the other hand, is nearly always offered free, and is usually based on distributed processing, which severely limits others to just running small applications on you computer to processing small chunks of data.

The Cloud Source Option
Renting time on computers is about as old as computers themselves. Cloud sourcing is simply using the Internet to provide virtual access rather than physical access to the rental computers. In the old days, renting time on your computer meant having a set of poor computer geeks show up at your business door every night at closing time, lugging boxes of tape reels, punch cards and a few pizzas. They'd load the data and programs they brought with them into the computer, and run it full blast through the night. With luck they would have cleared out by opening time.

These days, physical access to the computers for rent is no longer required. This substantially reduces the risk element involved at the physical level, but still leaves the problem of someone else running software and with access to your computer, and all of the security issues that entails. Still, it can be made to work, and it usually does.

However, though time rental can be profitable, it can be expensive to launch. The economics of cloud computing still favor companies large enough to have IT departments and the support staff required to make cloud computing work. Over time, it is likely that the technology supporting virtual processing will become commodity priced and easy enough to use a one-man shop could manage to offer time rental on the sole office computer.

For instance, at some point in the future we may see American advertising agencies of all sizes renting time on their computers at night to Indian advertising agencies. The benefit to the Indian agencies might not be access to high powered computers as much as access to the high priced software the agency would have. A full install of Adobe Creative Suite can run $2500. At least part of the cost could be defrayed by renting access on the computers with CS installed.

The Crowd Source Option
The alternative to renting time on your computer is to donate time to non-profits for R&D projects like seti@home, or any of over two dozen R&D projects available through BOINC. Businesses and individuals are given award banners to put on their Website and marketing material. Interestingly enough though, not all businesses that donate are after rewards.

Karen Randal of the SETI Institute told us that Amazon had been donating a substantial amount of processing time on their computers to SETI. This is something that Amazon hasn't gone out of its way to bring to the attention of the public. Nor has Dell said much about a very large donation of servers they made to SETI.

After the corporate excesses of the last decade it's refreshing to see that at least some large corporations are willing to make such substantial contributions to the advancement of society with so little concern for their own corporate interests.

It's never been this easy before, but it's not exactly new. Like computer time rental, distributed processing is a technology that has been around for some time and is also taking on a new dimension because of the Internet. As far back as 1992 there were distributed processing programs for the Mac, primarily in the areas of creating color separations and 3D rendering. These programs were designed to work over the local area office network, using the office computers to process work after hours. The Internet simply extended the local area network to a global scale.

Industry Specific R&D
A third option businesses might consider for their spare computer time is participating in industry sponsored R&D, which might actually have some very positive results. One of the problems with our current method of financing R&D is that generally only large corporations can afford R&D projects. Industries that are dominated by many small businesses rarely manage to band together and execute joint R&D projects, but this may change. Over the next decade it will become possible for groups of individual businesses with common interests to join together for an R&D project that might help all the members of that group. The R&D projects will have to be something that fit the BOINC model of processing small chunks of data with small apps, but no doubt, many projects will work.

A Vast Resource Wasted for Nothing
It's hard to estimate the total numbers of hours desktop computers in America spend idle every year, but it can only be astronomical. Billions of dollars worth of equipment is simply being wasted for much of the time. On a global scale, the waste becomes nearly incomprehensible. This isn't a condition we have to live with. Nor should we have to live with it. With proper planning, and a little work, your computer equipment can be doing something productive 24/7.

Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright © 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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