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Gateway makes store PCs work overtime

Rather than let the thousands of PCs in its stores sit largely unused, Gateway plans to let companies tap into those PCs for large computing projects.

Rather than continue to let the thousands of PCs in its stores sit largely unused, Gateway plans to announce Tuesday a project that will let companies tap into those PCs for large computing projects.

The PC maker is teaming with distributed-computing start-up United Devices to sell the combined computing power of its PCs to companies on a per-hour basis. Gateway plans to charge 15 cents per PC per hour to companies that want to marshal the computational resources of the latest Gateway desktops.

The move is designed, in part, to address critics who have charged that the company is not getting enough return on the high cost of running more than 270 stores nationwide. Gateway is not forecasting how much revenue it might see from the new project.

"It's anybody's guess," said Premal Kazi, a senior product manager at Gateway. "We will have an education phase because it is a new market."

Such distributed-computing efforts, by their nature, are limited to projects that have many tasks that can be performed in parallel without depending on the results of other calculations. However, Gateway said there are a number of projects in the life sciences, financial services and other industries that can tap such PC clusters for their computing needs.

Although rivals have announced larger-scale projects that aim to popularize a computer-as-utility business model, analysts say Gateway's is one of the first to actually be available, said Ahmar Abbas, managing director at Grid Technology Partners, a San Jose, Calif.-based consulting and market research firm.

"Somebody has actually done something instead of just talking about it," Abbas said.

IBM, for example, announced plans in October to invest $10 billion in on-demand computing.

Gateway's network of 8,000 PCs can deliver 14 teraflops (trillions of calculations per second) of power, very little of which is being used for in-store demos. That makes Gateway's available computing resources equivalent, at least in raw computing power, to some of the largest supercomputers.

The direct PC seller began working with United Devices in February and has tested the service on both internal projects and with Inpharmatica, a company that works to discover new drugs.

"This is actually pretty unique in that it offers the power of all the computers to anybody," Abbas said. "You could be a three-person research-and-development shop in the middle of nowhere."

The distributed-computing industry is in the midst of trying to move from philanthropic efforts, such as the alien searching SETI@home, to paid projects. So far, a number of start-ups that aimed to capitalize on the distributed-computing trend have failed.

However, Kazi said Gateway has a far better cost structure than competitors, which must absorb the cost of building such a PC network. Gateway, on the other hand, has already accounted for the cost of the PCs as part of its store operation.

Plus, because Gateway is always introducing faster models, its network is constantly growing more capable.

Gateway's effort to rent out the computing power of its in-store PCs is the first project to come to market from a new ventures group within Gateway that was set up earlier this year and reports to Chief Technology Officer Bob Burnett.