Distributed Computing: What Is It and Can It Be Useful

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Distributed Computing: What Is It and Can It Be Useful

A Brief Introduction

You can define distributed computing many different ways. Various vendors have created and marketed distributed computing systems for years, and have developed numerous initiatives and architectures to permit distributed processing of data and objects across a network of connected systems. They have developed a virtual environment where you can harness idle CPU cycles and storage space of tens, hundreds, or thousands of networked systems to work together on a particularly processing-intensive problem. The growth of such processing models has been limited, however, due to a lack of compelling applications and by bandwidth bottlenecks, combined with significant security, management, and standardization challenges. A number of new vendors have appeared to take advantage of the promising market; including Intel, Microsoft, Sun, and Compaq that have validated the importance of the concept.1 Also, an innovative worldwide distributed computing project whose goal is to find intelligent life in the universe--SETI@Home--has captured the imaginations, and desktop processing cycles of millions of users and desktops.

How It Works

The most powerful computer in the world, according to a recent ranking, is a machine called Janus, which has 9,216 Pentium Pro processors2. That's a lot of Pentiums, but it's a pretty small number in comparison with the 20 million or more processors attached to the global Internet. If you have a big problem to solve, recruiting a few percent of the CPUs on the Net would gain you more raw power than any supercomputer on earth. The rise of cooperative-computing projects on the Internet is both a technical and a social phenomenon. On the technical side, the key requirement is to slice a problem into thousands of tiny pieces that can be solved independently, and then to reassemble the answers. The social or logistical challenge is to find all those widely dispersed computers and persuade their owners to make them available.

In most cases today, a distributed computing architecture consists of very lightweight software agents installed on a number of client systems, and one or more dedicated distributed computing management servers. There may also be requesting clients with software that allows them to submit jobs along with lists of their required resources. An agent running on a processing client detects when the system is idle, notifies the management server that the system is available for processing, and usually requests an application package.

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