SETI uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology. SETI was originally powered by supercomputers, but then researcher David Gedy proposed creating a virtual supercomputer. SETI offers people screen saver software, and when the screen saver kicks in and indicates that a person's PC is idle, the idle capacity is used to analyze data from the radio telescopes.
Lately, most grid projects have been expensive and confined to compute-intensive fields such as drug discovery.
Now, grid's cousin, cloud computing, is poised to upend the grid model too and here again startups are pioneering new models.
Startup Cycle Computing was founded to offer cloud-based utility supercomputing services. Recently, the company spun up a 50,000-core virtual supercomputer using Amazon Web Services. The cluster was used to help develop drug compounds for cancer research. The customer, computational chemistry company SchrÃ'Â¶dinger, used the cloud-based virtual supercomputer to analyze 21 million drug compounds in three hours at a cost of under $5,000.
Using traditional computing models, a drug discovery company would have to spend $20 to $30 million on infrastructure alone, and even with that in place, the drug analysis process would take hundreds of hours to complete, not three.
"Having access to a virtual supercomputer frees researchers up," says Jason Stowe, CEO of Cycle Computing. "In the past, companies would have to scale down their research questions to match their infrastructure. You couldn't think too big because your internal 1,500-core cluster could only handle so much."
Stowe also says he believes that excess capacity represents an opportunity for more than just cloud providers. As businesses increasingly adopt virtual desktop infrastructures, powerful servers will be operating at near capacity from 9 to 5, and then they will be completely idle until the next morning.
Perhaps, like people with solar panels on their roofs, in the near future businesses will be able to sell capacity back to service providers. Drug discovery, financial risk management and engineering projects could all benefit from cheap, large-scale virtual supercomputing.
And what company wouldn't want to be able to say that it helped solve cancer, while also lowering its computing costs in the process?