Computing Grid - Dilbert Blog

Computing Grid

I imagine that someday any citizen will be able to buy a small computer and connect it to the Internet just to rent CPU time to the public. It will be similar to the way power utilities allow customers to sell solar power back to the grid whenever homes produce more energy than they use.

I realize that something like this is already being done for music file sharing services. And the SETI project can access your unused CPU time to search for ET. I’m talking about an expansion of what already exists. The business model and the legal hurdles are probably bigger obstacles than the technology.

Imagine buying a computer and plugging it into your Internet connection at home. The first menu that comes up allows you to choose between private computing (just you) or public, meaning the world can use your computing power on demand. And you get a discount on your own “computing utility” bill when your CPU is used by others. Depending on pricing and demand, you might get a positive investment return on your capital expense for the computer.

In California, solar customers can reduce their energy bill by the amount of power they “sell” back to the grid. But consumers can’t legally sell any excess energy they produce above their own billing level. I assume lobbyists are to blame for this ridiculous situation. For now, let’s happily imagine that our hypothetical computing grid doesn’t have that limitation.

Someday all of your important files will be stored in the cloud. For many of us, that’s already the case. It’s time to move our CPU needs to the cloud too. In the future, if you can’t afford a computer, you can pay a low monthly fee to have access to spare computing power on the Internet. I’m guessing that might cost $5 per month for the basic package, with a premium subscription service that offers higher speeds. The service should be cheap because most computing power on the planet sits idle most of the day.

With this business model, everyone on earth would have access to the equivalent of a supercomputer in the cloud for a few bucks per month plus whatever they pay for basic Internet access. You’ll never have to upgrade your computer, upgrade your software, install anti-virus software, or worry about any of the headaches of computer ownership.

Citizens would need little more than a smart screen with a browser that can connect to the computing grid. That’s still a computer, but it can be fairly basic. It just needs a browser.

For this model to work on a large scale you’d need to have WiFi in airplanes and everywhere else citizens need to access the Internet, but we’re well on the way to that world.

It’s not clear to me that a large company or even a government needs to be involved in building the system I’m describing. You could probably get there with an open software project. In fact, it’s probably the only way to get there because large companies have a stranglehold on the status quo.

Data privacy is a huge issue with this sort of business model, obviously. But I wonder if spreading your data and CPU usage across multiple processors and servers might actually give you better security than your current system in which all of your private stuff is conveniently organized on one computer so hackers can easily find it. Instead of having your credit card number stored in one location, the number might be broken up across several servers. If one server gets hacked, the thieves only get a partial number. And they wouldn’t have any way to know which servers have the rest of your digits.

By analogy, no one would try to steal your car if they knew it was disassembled and the parts were hidden all over your home. The analogy breaks down because crooks could steal and sell car parts. But if a hacker had only two digits of your credit card number it wouldn’t be worth much.

You may now commence shredding this idea.