What does your computer do when it is not being used?

United Devices, a start-up with US$13 million in venture capital, is hoping that users will install its client software and let their computers work on distributed projects along with thousands of other idle machines and devices connected to the Internet. When a computer is not being used or is under-used, the CPU will run an idle cycle to occupy its time. United Devices wants to garner these idle resources for good causes while making a buck in the process.

Currently, two popular projects, Distributed.net and SETI@Home, are using the distributed computing model to some level of success. SETI Institute claims over 2.3 million users have downloaded its client that processes radar data looking for extraterrestrial life. Distributed.net is working on a project to crack different encryption key lengths and has 266,000 users in its RC5-64 Challenge. But both of these are mainly volunteer efforts.

These two programs only touch a small number of the PCs, let alone other devices, connected to the Internet. United Devices wants to tap all these unused resources to create a platform for computational resource, such as decoding DNA sequences, creating massive search engine indexes and doing three-dimension rendering, says Ed Hubbard, CEO and founder of the company.

“In the bio-informatics space alone there is enough information for 100 years of computing time if all Internet devices were available,” Hubbard says.

United Devices uses a small client that can be downloaded by a user, an API for connecting to the network (in most cases, the Internet) and its own back-end servers for scheduling and processing results generated from the client. For a fee, companies will be able to used United Devices’ platform of computers for their own research projects. The company’s goal is to create a distributed supercomputer capable of 10 times the processing power of today’s fastest supercomputer for one-tenth the cost, Hubbard says.

To put that in perspective, the SETI project claims to be averaging 15 teraflops per second of processing power with 2.3 million users. Interestingly, David Anderson, the brains behind SETI@Home, is one of the founders and chief technology officer of United Devices.

To make it work, projects are broken down into small chunks of work that are given out to machines a handful at a time based on their performance. The machine works on the chunk in its spare time and hands the results back when it’s complete, starting the entire process over.

Hubbard says the two major fears that the company has to overcome are security and privacy. In terms of the user running the client, the only data collected is about the machine itself, with the information (connection speed, processor, etc.) being used for scheduling purposes. On the security side, the connection from client to server is encrypted, the core of the client is encrypted and the client checks to make sure no debugging editors are present in memory when the system is started. “We don’t want to be the weakest link in the system,” Hubbard says.

In terms of the biological information that could be processed, Hubbard says most of the data and tools used are in the public domain anyway. “Most companies are willing to take the risk of people poking around into what they’re processing for the speed boost,” he adds.

United Devices will first offer the service in an application service provider type of model that will utilize any computer connected to the Internet for projects. The cost has not yet been determined, but Hubbard says it will probably be around a tenth of the cost of a supercomputer. An enterprise site license is planned for those customers that want to use the system on their internal networks to take advantage of the hundreds of office PCs that spend time idling.

The company may also approach some nonprofits about using the system to help gain visibility in the market. They may offer cash and other incentives to users.

Release Candidate 1 of the United Devices client software is available.

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