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Companies working on standard for distributed computing

A group of companies has joined together to try to make it easier to take advantage of the increasingly popular method for harnessing otherwise wasted computing power.

A group of companies

Meta Group says SETI@home is an ideal distributed computing project because the data is very easily parsed into chunks and scheduling is fairly easy.

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has joined together to try to make it easier to take advantage of distributed computing, an increasingly popular method for harnessing otherwise wasted computing power.

Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer and SGI have joined with distributed computing software seller Platform Computing and a host of other companies to standardize the way computers are harnessed into distributed computing collections.

Distributed computing uses the CPU power of computers that otherwise goes to waste--not just during the night or when the screensaver switches on, but even between keystrokes.

The concept of distributed computing is what underlies the power of the SETI@home project, which uses idle PC time to collectively search for alien communication signals--but there are more profitable applications as well.

The distributed method is used to perform numerically challenging computations for financial, automotive, pharmaceutical and other industries. Intel and Sun Microsystems, for example, have used distributed computing to design chips.

Numerous start-ups are trying to take advantage of interest in the area, while Turbolinux and Sun Microsystems each have their own products for distributed computing.

But distributed computing suffers from a problem: For a calculation to run on 1,200 different computers, someone has to write software for all those computers. It's not hard if it's 1,200 identical Windows PCs, but it gets more difficult when Unix servers, Linux workstations, Mac graphics stations or even intelligent refrigerators get thrown into the mix.

The new consortium, called the New Productivity Initiative, hopes its standard will make it easier to take advantage of distributed computing. The group plans to seek the endorsement of an independent standards organization.

The goal eventually is to make distributed computing an ordinary part of as many operating systems as possible, said Bill Hartwick, Platform Computing's vice president of marketing.

Sun is clearly one company interested in distributed computing. In July, it acquired Gridware, a company that sells its own distributed computing software. But Sun's interest is deeper: It's a longtime customer of Platform Computing's competing software package, LSF.

Sun has been using LSF for more than five years to design custom chips, said Jeff Langner, Platform Computing's vice president of business development. Sun on Wednesday bought licenses to use LSF on another 1,200 computers.

"They're in the million-dollar club," Langer said, though he didn't reveal a specific price tag for the software licenses.

Other Platform Computing customers include Ford Motor, BMW, Toyota, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Monsanto, AT&T, Alcatel, Nokia and Cadence, Langner said.