From the Ether

SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - Beware of greeks bearing gifts. Kevin Kinsella, my old Sigma Nu fraternity brother, bore a one-page plan for Centrata Inc. -- a proposed spin-off from our alma mater, MIT.

Kinsella, a renowned entrepreneur, was on the verge of a seed investment in Centrata. Being a journalist, however, I don't read business plans.

But glancing at Centrata's one-pager, I couldn't help noticing that they are pursuing one of my favorite ideas: Centrata plans to make a market for unused computing resources on the Internet and thereby assemble "the world's fastest computer and the world's largest hard drive."

So I went to www.centrata.com to read about Shishir Mehrotra and David Ratajczak from the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, where I twice worked.

They are students of David Karger and Larry Rudolph in a group conducting research on high-performance and fault-tolerant distributed systems.

This is the group I associate with Inktomi Corp. (via the University of California at Berkeley) and with Akamai Technologies Inc. -- two important dot-com infrastructure start-ups.

Next thing, I was on the phone with CEO Mehrotra, a fourth-year undergraduate.

Centrata is entered in MIT's "$50k" business plan competition, which is where I met Akamai just before that company received its first round of venture capital funding.

The first thing I told Mehrotra was that he probably should not be talking to the press quite yet.

He called back to go on the record with what Centrata is planning, except for its first big application.

In short, Centrata is planning to pay "members" to make available on the Internet their unused computing resources; for example, excess processor cycles and disk storage on your personal computer.

Centrata will then charge "customers" to use these resources via applications running on its software infrastructure.

Examples of Centrata applications are Web site testing a la Keynote, music downloading a la Napster, electronic mail a la Yahoo, and Centrata's first big application, which is off the record. Running the world's fastest computer and largest disk is several years out.

So, were you a Centrata member, a designated portion of your disk would become part of a RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) spread over the Internet.

Encrypted data from customer applications would be stored on your disk.

You would not be able to read the data, nor would your disk be the only place that any data is stored.

Centrata data would be redundantly located on many member disks according to how it is being used by customer applications.

You would be paid to be a Centrata member. Benefits to customers would be lower cost, higher reliability, and better performance for their distributed applications.

I asked Mehrotra about Centrata's algorithms. He said the basic trick is to avoid bottlenecks by randomizing access paths.

This sounds like Ethernet, only Centrata randomizes over space instead of time.

Centrata is not the first to attempt networking unused computing resources.

I've previously written about MangoSoft (www.mangosoft.com), which combines disks on a LAN. Theirs has been a rocky road.

Another example comes from the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) at projectsetiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu.

There you will find 2 million computers registered to invest their unused resources in the processing of radio signals from space.

SETI@Home's member computers volunteer to perform small work units in a 2-year-long search.

Each unit is the scanning of about 100 seconds from a small portion of a 2MHz spectrum being recorded by a 305-meter radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Last time I checked, 2,796 computers had reported search results over the preceding 24 hours, delivering 13 trillion floating-point operations per second.

But, so far, the truth is out there.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe is having a big month. There's this column at infoworld.com/metcalfe; his weekly Wednesday Webcast at itworld.com; his speeches in Nantucket, Massachusetts, InfoWorld's CTO Forum, and Vortex, at www.vortex2000.com; and his new book, Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry, at www.Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Whew.

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