'Virtual' computers span the digital divide

August 6, 2009 by Glenn Chapman

NComputing is out to span the digital divide with a version of cloud computing called "virtualization," which essentially turns one machine into many.

The California-based startup has installed more than two million computer "seats" worldwide in the past two years and its business is rocketing, particularly in developing countries where cash is scarce.

"We are showing how the next wave of IT is going to have a profound effect on digital inclusion because it will be affordable to everyone," NComputing chief executive Stephen Dukker told AFP on Tuesday.

"This technology is not a classic obsolete, hand-me-down to the developing world. This is leading-edge technology being deployed in corporations today and the foundation behind cloud computing."

NComputing builds software that takes advantage of the fact that chips in computers are far more powerful than most users need.

V Space software divides in computers into arrays of "virtual" machines, each linked to separate monitors and keyboards.

A typical (PC) user routinely calls on about 10 percent of a machine's computing power, according to NComputing.

"We put in software that allows multiple, separate desktops to live inside a PC; the computer is shared," Dukker said.

"If a person is not a rocket scientist simulating the creation of the universe, or someone else who needs all those millions of instructions per second, most of a computer's capability is wasted."

The latest computing technology can be put into work stations for as little as 70 dollars (US) per virtual machine, according to NComputing.

"The NComputing model disrupts the normal value chain of the one-to-one PC business system," said Brooke Partridge, chief executive of Vital Wave Consulting firm that specializes in technology growth in emerging markets.

"It dramatically reduces the price per computing seat without compromising on performance."

While the US is NComputing's biggest single market, more than half of its business comes from developing countries.

"There are a billion people on the planet living on less than a dollar a day; they've got big worries on their minds that probably don't include computers," Partridge said.

"There are a billion with wealth enough to buy their one-to-one computers. Then, there is this huge group in between that could really benefit from broad access to PCs."

Partridge sees virtual desktops working in schools, Internet cafes, government centers and other venues where people are comfortable using computers in communal spaces.

"NComputing is getting some great traction in the market globally," Partridge said.

About 70 percent of NComputing's sales have been to educational institutions, where budgets are notoriously tight.

The government of Andhra Pradesh in India used NComputing to provide 1.8 million students with first-time computer access and is estimated to have saved millions of dollars in equipment, electricity, and support costs.

Virtual computers use a small fraction of the electricity that would be used if each person had their own machine.

NComputing feeds into local economies by buying hardware locally and training people in communities to provide support for .

Macedonia is NComputing's single largest user, having provided virtual desktops for every public school student in the country, according to Dukker.

A Khanya Project is working with NComputing to replace power-hogging, unreliable computers with virtual machines in poor towns in South Africa.

"It's very cool," Dukker said. "Crossing the digital divide is, in fact, what we have enabled."

NComputing recently announced an alliance with Chinese PC maker Haier, which is expected to provide access to low-priced hardware.

"Within the next five years economics will no longer be the barrier to participation in the information society," Dukker said.

(c) 2009 AFP

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not rated yet Aug 06, 2009
Can the energy/carbon footprint of multiple remotely networked machines be equal or less than one-to-one computer at equivalent performance?

This does not look like a step in the right direction.

Hardware prices continue to fall. Good one-to-one computers can be supplied and powered for as little as a 'virtual workstation', so long as the operating system and software costs are brought into line with the hardware cost.

I think that Cloud Computing for Partitioned/Shared Centralised Data Centres is in line with current Business, Economic and Environmental targets, but spreading each Workstation across the Internet is not.

The increase in Internet traffic/bandwidth would be exponential and that would require energy that is currently producing greenhouse gases.

The fact that the device powered in front of the user is reliant on multiple other devices in remote locations (each drawing their own power) in order to provide a single useful workstation, to my thinking, runs contrary to Moore's Law and all the current trends of techno-economic evolution in 'workstation' and/or 'domestic entertainment console' technologies

Let us not change the Client/Server business model without a related drop in energy demands from the new model, incorporating all energy and data transportation costs

Plus ... lets get Cloud Computing right for Servers first. Later we can see if putting the Workstation in the Cloud also makes sense (as well as cents)
not rated yet Aug 06, 2009
Sorry, but your facts are way off.

A cloud terminal will draw significantly less power than a standard PC. They're built using low-power processors, NAND memory and no moving parts, leaving them with footprints in the 5-12 watt range. The standard PC nowadays ranges from 400-700 watts.

Also, the bandwidth requirements won't be a greater burden but a great relief. A remote KVM Audio stream for 1280x1024 display at 16-bit color is only 160 kbps. This is a drop in the pond compared to the bandwidth used by the standard web browser or watching a Youtube video. If they instead begin with a smaller resolution or only 256 colors, the bandwidth is paltry.

If the ISPs in developing nations only need to worry about 100-160 kbps to each home, instead of the 2 mbps expected in developed nations, it will mean more money can be spent increasing speeds between cities instead of rolling out a higher speed client-end network. This would also, again, save a great amount of money and energy.

The average user that only browses web sites, reads email, views videos and listens to music, can do this using relatively minimal processor and as little as 256MB of RAM (much less if you exclude video). Current cloud costs in the US for this scenario are around $0.015 an hour. The average American spends 15 hours a week doing these things, so we're talking only $0.90 a month of cloud usage. That's the equivalent of buying a $500 computer and using it for five years. Add in the reduced electricity and broadband costs to the user, and they're saving a bundle.

As far as the server side, if each server using current technology requires 1000 watts and can host 100 cloud terminals each running at 15 watts, that's only 25 watts per household instead of 400 watts.

We're just talking computing and electrical power here, not even going into the reliability of cloud storage (can't lose data) or the lack of tech support needed (terminal dies, send a replacement).

Your argument is moot. The time is ripe for this technology to do a lot of good bringing developing nations the Internet.

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