Researchers ponder rent-a-chip computing

Researchers ponder rent-a-chip computing

As powerful as computer chips have become, a lot of folks don't come anywhere near the boundaries of their computers' capacity reading e-mail, watching YouTube videos, playing "World of Warcraft" and the like.

Suppose you could buy only as much computing power as you need, for the time being, or even at the moment, kind of like you buy electricity.

Such a system could have economic advantages for consumers – they wouldn't pay for capacity they never tap – especially consumers like businesses and other organizations that run lots of computers.

But it also may make sense for computer chip manufacturers like Intel, University of Illinois Professor Rakesh Kumar said.

Chips have become increasingly expensive to design, reducing the number that are designed for special purposes, even as the number of uses they're put to expands, said Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

At the same time, the industry faces a lot of pressure to hold the line on prices, shrinking its profit margins on the devices.

The idea of more general-purpose chips whose capabilities, power and performance could be tailored on the fly is an attractive one from a manufacturer's perspective.

Kumar and his students are suggesting some technology that could facilitate those advantages for both consumers and manufacturers.

The way the system works now, a customer basically estimates how much computing power she or he needs and buys accordingly. If the user outstrips that capacity, the only way to increase it is to install a new chip or, more likely, buy a whole new computer.

When users overestimate, however, they end up paying for more capacity than they need, plenty in the case of today's "multicore" chips – that is, chips that essentially have two, four, or more brains, which are becoming common.

The UI researchers' idea is that those cores, and perhaps other features on a chip, could be active only when you need them, with you paying only for the active capacity as well.

Kumar, whose research focuses on computer architecture and programming, said such a system might take a number of forms.

You might, for instance, buy a four-core machine, find you need only two and get a rebate for shutting two off. Likewise, you might find you need three later and pay to turn on another.

You also might "lease" a certain level of functionality from a chip over a specified period for a fee and make adjustments when renewing that agreement, kind of like buying a cell phone contract with a certain number of minutes.

Or you might pay a bill, monthly or whatever, based on the amount of capacity you make use of, just like you pay for the electricity or water you use.

Computing capacity in the latter two cases is treated like a service, as opposed to buying a chip and all its capability outright. You might even get the chip, or a computer, on the cheap or free for subscribing to the service, like getting a deal on a phone when you sign up for a cell plan.

"What the right economic model should be is not clear," Kumar said. "I'm making the case that these may be economic models to consider."

The technology to do something like the UI researchers suggest isn't far from being in place.

Chip manufacturers such as Intel already ship some chips with features turned off, say, to save power in a mobile device setting. Even something as common as cable TV boxes has the capability for new features to be activated on demand, Kumar and graduate student Joseph Sloan noted in a recent paper on the UI research.

"IBM already sells mainframes where you pay for what you use," Kumar said.

He said chips, by their nature, can be uniquely identified already, too. Hardware to control the activation, or deactivation, of features and to collect data on usage levels would need to be added, but doing that doesn't present major challenges.

Kumar said a code tied to the unique identification number of a chip could be generated to allow activation or deactivation.

He outlined a scenario in which you decide you need more computing power, visit a Web site, plug in your credit card number and get the code back in return, which activates your new capacity when you restart your computer.

The system also could be designed to turn the chip off entirely in the event of tampering, he said, to discourage people from trying to circumvent it.

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