Grid and Bear It

Grid and Bear It

This month, our ever-resourceful commentator invests in a do-it-yourself grid and discovers a new meaning to drive-thru.

I'm certain my laptop's performance is decreasing. I used my brother's brand new computer on the weekend and now mine seems really slow. I hate being forced by this planned obsolescence to buy yet another computer to self-supersede in a year's time. I did that last year when I replaced my two-year-old desktop with the laptop - and again two years before that, and before that, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

As I stepped over the carcasses of old system units in my office to head into the "staff canteen" for some cranial stimulant (don't get excited, I mean coffee), I noticed the number of intelligent gadgets that now reside in my house. The fridge, microwave, washing machine, dryer, DVD, home theatre and TV all have processors (each of them faster than my 1995 state-of-the-art Pentium Pro desktop) in them and realized there's a lot of underused computer power surrounding me. The words grid computing formed in my mind.

Like thousands of others, I've run the SETI program on my laptop (just got noise so far), the Protein Folding application (no cure for cancer from me) and read about the current brain simulation research, all performed across a grid of separate, relatively low-powered computers. All I had to do was work out how to connect all these household devices together and gain a huge increase in computing power to run my own complex and socially critical application - my BAS calculations.

I started by connecting my old servers, which are now stacked in a precarious pile, though I'm certain the mass of cables is helping to stabilize them. My 20-year-old IBM PC-XT defeated me. Even after finding a way to communicate to it through its serial port, the speed of its 4.77MHz 8088 meant that just the act of requesting work sent it to 100 percent utilization. But I did successfully cable up the PowerPC processors in my Ford Fairmont for a surprising amount of additional grunt. When they say these cars are powerful, they're not talking engines any more.

As always happens in pioneering ventures, there were hiccups. I wired the connections between the washing machine and the fridge incorrectly, and my fridge tried doing a spin cycle. It didn't cause any damage apart from turning the milk into a light brie and the champagne into a potentially lethal weapon depending where it's aimed.

The BAS application started well, but when I increased complexity by changing the ATO instalment tax rate, I noticed a sudden performance drop. Was this too much? I'd lost five CPUs from the grid and after much problem determination discovered this was caused by the boss taking the company Ford to the shops. The program recovered and, apart from losing cooking functions in the microwave for a couple of days, the February BAS finished successfully, and perhaps accurately. I proudly showed the boss the results, rejecting suggestions that using an accountant would have been easier and cheaper.

Following the BAS triumph, I installed the application I've always wanted but never had the gigahertz to run - a voice-activated home control system. It works fantastically. If I want to dim the lights to watch the footy, I just walk over to the phone, press a button and say: "Dim the lounge-room lights." That gets speech processed, converted to binary, translated to a device level command and dispatched to the lighting controller. Lights are now dimmed.

The boss has naturally failed to appreciate this technological triumph, pointing out that given I walk past the light switch to pick up the phone, I could turn the dimmer myself.

I wonder if Edison had to work under these conditions.

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT professional specializing in leading-edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"

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