Outtakes from The Network Really Is the Computer

by Tim O'Reilly

The following material got cut as the talk evolved, but I thought I'd keep them in the written version as a small digression.

SetiAtHome and the computing "power grid"

I'd like to talk about a completely different kind of network-enabled collaboration.

Most of us don't have generators powering our homes. We connect to a power grid. Well, early signs of the computing equivalent to the power grid are starting to emerge.

We now see a number of projects that harness the spare cycles of thousands or millions of computers to tackle very large computational projects. You've probably heard about various crypto challenges, cracking very large keys, that have been carried out by this method, or the search for very large prime numbers. But my current favorite is the SetiAtHome project, probably the largest of them all. More than two million people have downloaded the SetiAtHome client, which runs as a screen saver on desktop PCs, or a low priority background process on servers, processing radio telescope data looking for signs of extra terrestrial intelligence.

People download several hundred KB of radio telescope data, process it locally -- taking anywhere from 6-30 hours per batch -- and upload the result back to the Space Sciences Lab at UC Berkeley. There are about 3/4 million active participants.

As this kind of concept catches on, I expect to see hundreds or thousands of such projects created, where communities of like minded people will contribute their spare computing power to projects they care about.

The point, once again, is that the network enables people to contribute to some larger project, regardless of their formal corporate affiliation.

Collaboratively Constructed Web Sites

I'd also like to talk briefly about yet another kind of collaborative project:, ebay, and any other web site that depends for some or all of its content on the contributions of its audience. Amazon reviews are a way that amazon's users contribute every day to enriching its user interface. For that matter, publishers, who supply cover images, supporting information, and so on, are all partners with Amazon in building their site.

Slashdot is a particularly interesting example, because they've made community construction the centerpiece of what they do. I like to contrast CNet and Slashdot. CNet is a first generation web site: hire a lot of writers and editors and build all your own content. Slashdot: a couple of kids in a dorm room throw the doors open to their readers, and let them supply the content!

To me, the lesson of slashdot is the way that the later generation is more attuned to the implications of the net: you don't have to do it all yourself.

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