Enter The Matrix

Published Date
01 - Mar - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2005
Enter The Matrix
Think of the way you use your mobile phone, anywhere you have network. Think of how you charge it: at least 10 points all over your home, your office, your car charger, in hotels, airports, airplanes and trains! Now, think of these network areas and electric supplies becoming computing power outlets…

There's a fundamental reason why you cannot store a two hour DivX movie on your handheld computer; it's the same reason you cannot do high-end video rendering on your old Pentium III computer. Resources!

From RAM to computing power and hard disk space to optical drive resources to network bandwidth, every aspect of our current computing experience is marred by boundaries, by limitations. Computing technology is on the verge of evolving past these boundaries-researchers have been coming out with solutions to the current limitations.

The Computer Caste System
Just as in every other aspect of life, we have segregation of the haves and have-nots in the computing world. Just as everywhere else, this boils down to money. The reason why one of us has an AMD Athlon XP 64 and the other still works on a Pentium 3 500 MHz, is the Computer Caste System.

What about electricity? Every little house in India's big cities enjoys the once-luxurious commodity called power. Another example is Internet penetration. This has increased in orders of magnitude over the past decade. Why? The keyword here is utility! A computer or a car are examples of luxuries; electricity, water, public transport and the like are examples of utilities. You pay for as much as you use!

Most of us cannot think of buying a limousine, but we can rent one to impress a client. So imagine if you could use computing power as variably as you do water or electricity. At the end of the month, you receive a 'computing bill'. This is not a dream; in fact, experts say it's only a matter of time before it becomes the norm.

Utility Computing
As we mentioned earlier, every traditional computer environment setup is limited to itself, every computer is self sufficient, or actually, self limiting. Every component of a computer is treated as an individual product-each computer's graphics card for example, dictates what that computer can achieve in terms of display. The same applies to hard drives and other components. Networking has reduced the limitations of storage space-now other components of the computer need to break free.

As technology becomes more pervasive than ever,
your PC might soon wield more power than today's

In a Utility Computing (UC) scenario, nothing is bound to anything else. There is a virtual pool of resources, available to any task, and as a result, any user, who needs it. The dynamics of this resource pool are constantly changing as the needs of the collective user-base change.

In order to understand the functioning here, imagine a PC just the way it is, with the difference being the fact that none of the components in your computer belong solely to you. In a UC environment, your computer's unused resources could be allocated to other users in the same UC grid. It all boils down to leasing computing resources just as we do for electricity. Billing can also be done easily on a per-grid, per-group or per-person basis. We could have next-generation Params sitting in government labs, computing for the masses.

What About Software?
Current software is as limited as our hardware, but this will need to change in order to achieve Utility Computing. In a true UC environment, things such as an OS don't mean a thing. Users are not classified according to 'Windows' or 'Unix', but merely by the task they want done. Yes, applications need to remain familiar, but hardware and software need to become two independent entities.

So You Mean Grid Computing?
No, we do not! Grids may simply enable utility computing. Grid computing is used to achieve impressive number crunching capabilities, as is the case with the SETI@home project.

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) revolves around capturing radio waves from space and computing them to look for patterns-as in communication. The problem is that all solar masses in the universe release radio waves into space. Essentially, the SETI project is looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack the size of our universe. Since they don't have multi-billion dollar research grants, they hit upon the idea of using the Internet as a distribution tool and getting computing help from the masses. If you download and install the SETI@home client, your computer will download a small chunk of radio data from SETI, and when you are not using your computer, it processes the data.

Because of the millions of people running this program, SETI benefits from free computing that would otherwise cost them millions of dollars in supercomputer time.

'Our' Computer?
Utility Computing, however, is not just about number crunching. It is about sharing every resource that a computer currently uses. And more importantly, UC is all about 'on-demand' resources.

A Chip That Computes 10 Times Faster Than Exisitng CPUs 
IBM, Toshiba and Sony recently collaborated on research for a new chip called the 'Hard Cell' or 'Cell'. This new chip will power Sony's upcoming PS3 gaming console. Toshiba will also put the Cell to use in an upcoming line of HDTVs. The companies call it a "supercomputer on a chip."
The best thing about the Cell is that it is rated to be 10 times faster than existing CPUs. According to IBM, it contains "eight synergistic processors and top clock speeds of greater than 4 GHz (as measured during initial hardwar
e testing)." This new chip is capable of massive floating point processing-which is required by graphics.
However, that's not the reason why we mention it here. The feature that excites us most is that the cell is a multi-core chip with a difference: each processing unit in the Cell can process information from different tasks. Existing chips can only handle one task at a time, so even if the task is relatively small-using almost nothing of the CPU's capability-the processor does not accept more tasks. With the Cell, however, multiple tasks can be executed simultaneously, with the central Processing Unit (PU) deploying work to the Attached Processing Units (APUs). This increases efficiency tremendously, and is the reason why the creators are confident of the Cell outperforming current chips 10 to 1. Since the APUs are sort of like freelance workers, unused computing power can be shared over a network of Cell-based computers, forming a computing Grid.
The 'cell' that gives the chip its name doesn't refer to the hardware, but to a virtual clump of software that roams the system looking for computing resources. For Sony's PS3, this means that a network of PS3s can share resources so that everyone has a better gaming experience. This could be the beginnings of Utility Computing. At least we know now that the hardware already exists!

In the ideal UC scenario, terms such as speed and capacity do not exist. When a task needs to be completed, it is done as fast as the overall UC grid will allow. So, say you want to render a two-hour animation you created, you don't need to worry about which drive to store the large file on, or shutting down applications to make the process faster. Hard disk space and CPU and GPU resources would be allocated as the need arises. Gigahertz clock speeds and GBs of disk space would mean nothing. A system specification query might return something akin to what KaZaA displays-Our Computer: 70,65,345 users, 65,43,58,723 processes; Free resources: 44,58,92,87,345 GB; 8,69,307 GHz!

Who Will Govern UC?
A valid question, but one that still has no clear answers. In order for UC to become a reality, governments will need to get involved. The infrastructure required is tremendous, and more than any individual company can finance. Of course, software also has to be written to support and share the hardware.

Another possibility is that, as with SETI@home, groups may form to freely share resources and form private grids. In this scenario, everyone buys hardware and software and then joins their favourite UC group. Perhaps private groups will charge a nominal fee to become a member and review each member's contribution, based on which the annual fee would increase or decrease.

Another possibility is to leave UC to care for itself, as happened with the Internet. Just a few governing bodies here and there to prevent total mayhem, but we'd still have the gigantic processing power of every computer online!

What About Privacy And Security?
The greatest fear of using UC will stem from privacy and security. Every computer out there, whether at work or at home, contains some information that the owner considers private. People fear that joining a UC grid is akin to publishing all your hard drive's content on the Internet-and with write access!

Perhaps that's why governments need to be involved. We need the accountability that is sorely lacking with the Internet. The threat of spyware, adware, viruses and worms from the Internet is already invading our privacy-we don't need less privacy, we need more. Software and hardware vendors will claim to design products that offer you privacy, but they promise that already, and we already know that everything tech is fallible.

What About Other Devices?
It's not only computers that will benefit. With pervasive computing and convergence becoming reality, soon everyone will know how to use gadgets, and will want to only work with gadgets. We will forget about, say, standard refrigerators. We will want a single input device, like the computer, and expect everything else to know what our computer does.

Sun's Grid 
Sun Microsystems Inc. is ready to unveil its Sun Grid. It plans to open six grid centres around the world.
Customers can access the grid and are charged a mere $1 per hour per CPU. Out of the six data centres, three are in the US, two in the UK, and one in Canada.
The servers consist of both Sun's SPARC and AMD's Opteron processors, all running Solaris 10. This is the first step to managed UC being offered around the world. Sun plans to have a global grid, but with regional services. 

Let's say you plan a two-week vacation; you tell your computer this; the computer informs all your gadgets. The fridge informs you that you better remove the ripe tomatoes and the Macaroni Salad, lest you want to come back to a messy and smelly fridge. The washing machine reads the tags on your clothing and tells you that you need to do a quick wash if you plan to take your best clothes. The car informs you that you haven't had it serviced this month, and you definitely need to do so before your long drive. Your mobile automatically selects and chooses the right roaming plan. You give the go ahead, fall asleep, your body monitoring-watch and alarm clock communicate and find the ideal time to awaken you-they consider how much rest you have got according to your body's readings, and also how much time you normally take to get ready at this time of the day. You wake up, your hot bath is already waiting for you…

This scenario seems out of place when talking about Utility Computing, but is a necessary example to inform you that everything will have an embedded chip soon, and everything will be connected. Universal resources are the key; and just as they are not hardware or software specific, the are not device or task specific either.

Is Any Of This Actually Possible?
All of the above was theory of course, but theory based on facts. (See boxes 'Sun's Grid' and 'The Cell') The fact is, companies have just started releasing results of years of research. The Cell, for example, was developed by IBM, Toshiba and Sony. It will be the first processor that can share resources with similar processors.

Sun's UC plans also prove that there is a market for on-demand computing, and that the bigwigs are sitting up and taking notice. UC needs the likes of Sun, IBM, Sony,  and others, to take interest in this promising field. Not only will this increase competition, it will speed up the creation of solutions to the problems faced by UC.

As technology becomes more pervasive than ever, your PC might soon wield more power than today's supercomputers. And all this will come at the price of your household utility bills!

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.