Web Informant #359, 25 February 2004:

Oh, What You Can Do With a Cheap CPU




We are entering a new computing era, the era where cheap

processing power is enabling a new series of applications that

is astounding and amazing, the stuff of science fiction. And

I, for one, am excited about such opportunities.


Yesterday's New York Times front page carried a front page

story by John Markoff about what he calls flash mob computing,

a fancy way of saying that a bunch of kids carried their PCs

to a local university gym to set them up on a network and have

them act as a cluster of computing nodes.



Back when I was teaching high school networking topics, we

called these events LAN parties, and they principally were for

the kids to gather together and play network-based games in

someone's house. All you needed were plenty of power plugs, a

router or a hub, and some space to set everything up.


The whole thing has me flashing back to 1987 when I was at PC

Week, and Barry Gerber of UCLA, Jan Newman of Novell, and Bill

Alderson of Network General got a bunch of IBM PS/2s together

to do the first LAN topology tests, running Netware over

Ethernet, Arcnet, and Token Ring (Ethernet won, by the way).

What was similar was we had extension cords running all over

the UCLA building that we were using for the makeshift staging

area, and we kept running out of power plugs, not to mention

the fans that we brought in to try to keep the heat pumping

out from all those computers from frying us and the equipment

too. Those tests cemented some solid friendships and

professional relationships over the years with Gerber, Newman

and Alderson, too.


But the power and AC requirements notwithstanding, the

software is what makes these Dean-like be-ins (I am showing my

age, I know) possible. The software to assemble a cluster of

computers is fairly well understood by now. A good example

includes peer-to-peer products such as SETI-at-home and others

than can disassemble a single computing task amongst hundreds

and thousands and even millions of separate machines.


It isn't just software. Blade servers are becoming less and

less expensive, and now it isn't unusual to find racks and

racks of computers that are used in everyday applications. A

lot of people now have some pretty substantial horsepower at

home; in some cases their home PCs are more powerful than the

ones at work. And most of the time, these machines aren't

doing much that taxes their CPUs, even with the latest

Microsoft applications that grab more and more processing

power to do the same tasks. But I digress.


Clusters-on-the-fly are just the tip of the iceberg. Other

vendors are beginning to think clustering as part of their

default approach when building their applications. I got to

see another application yesterday that extends the concept of

harnessing lots of horsepower for something a bit more

understandable, such as video compression.


Here's the problem: sending digital video around the Internet

takes a very fat pipe. This is one of the reasons that copying

DVDs hasn't taken off: it takes longer to move all these bits

and you also need lots of processing power to encode and send

the video out into the world. What I saw yesterday from a

company called Broadcast International (brin.com) got me

pumped, because what it is trying to do is to compress this

video signal as much as possible, so that the receiving end

won't need super-duper power to view the video stream.


The issue hinges around using multiple video codecs, which are

a combination of software and hardware routines that are

designed for particular kinds of scenes and activities. The

folks at BI have developed some nifty routines that will allow

a video server to switch codecs on the fly, from frame to

frame, so that the right kind of compression routine is

matched up with the particular kind of scene that is being

filmed. For example, they told me about one codec that works

well with smoke and fog scenes, and another with rain and

water scenes.


The beauty of the system is that you don't need to have much

more software on the receiving end, beyond the usual media

players from Real and Microsoft (with a small plug-in from BI)

to view the encoded video stream. That makes a lot of sense.


Up until now, these codecs were horsepower hogs, and there

wasn't an easy way to switch from one to another without a lot

of trouble. The company has developed algorithms to do this,

and also uses a bunch of clustered computers to encode the

video signal. Again, all of this wouldn't be possible just a

few years ago, when having a dual processor Pentium 300 was

considered hot stuff.


The flash mob computing may get the headlines, but the work

that BI and others are doing to build processor-intensive

applications will be the ones we'll all be using in the next

few years. And from this work we should see other video-

oriented applications that will harness the Internet in new

and interesting ways.


Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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