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 supercomputers.
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 punch.
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 Burnett.
About a year ago, Burnett downloaded a couple of software programs onto his personal computers that seek to tap surplus computing power: SETI@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 officer.
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."