Image: Flashmob 1
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images
A participant in the Flashmob 1 project works on setting up the computer network Saturday at the University of San Francisco.
By
updated 4/4/2004 1:41:40 PM ET 2004-04-04T17:41:40

Hundreds of technophiles Saturday wired their computers together in an attempt to generate computing power on a par with the world’s strongest supercomputers.

The experiment organized by researchers at the University of San Francisco was designed to determine whether a gymnasium full of off-the-shelf laptops and desktops networked together can muster enough power to process the most complex research problems.

Organizers failed to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 supercomputers as they had hoped, but said the event, which they called “Flashmob I,” was a success nonetheless.

“Flashmob is about democratizing supercomputing,” said John Witchel, a graduate student at USF who codeveloped the concept. “It’s about giving supercomputing power to the people so that we can decide how we want supercomputers to be used.”

Being 'part of history'
Supercomputers perform highly sophisticated functions, such as predicting weather patterns, modeling biological processes or animating movies. Most are run by government laboratories or big corporations because they are expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Saturday’s flash-mob event was a dry run designed to measure how much computing power could be generated, rather than tackle a specific task.

About 660 volunteers took part, including programmers, self-described “computer geeks,” teenagers, college students and researchers. Cables connecting various laptops and desktops were strewn across the gym.

“I just want to be part of history,” said Glenn Montano, a USF senior majoring in computer science.

Organizers had hoped to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 supercomputers by generating more than 500 gigaflops of power. A powerful PC can generate about half a gigaflop. The top spot is held by a Japanese computer that generates about 35,000 gigaflops.

Saturday’s event managed to generate 180 gigaflops — not enough to make the Top 500 list. Still, organizers said they were pleased.

“This proves that this kind of computing can be competitive with computers that cost tens of millions of dollars,” Witchel said.

Silly and serious
The term “flash mob” comes from the spontaneous Internet-organized gatherings that gained popularity last year. During the events, hundreds of people suddenly appear at a predetermined location, perform a wacky stunt — such as wearing purple hats or spinning in circles — then quickly disperse, leaving bystanders scratching their heads.

Saturday’s event was not the first time citizens have pooled their computing power. For example, the SETI @ home project has created a virtual supercomputer through Internet-connected PCs to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Organizers hope the Flashmob concept can eventually be applied to problems requiring high-powered computing such as the study of global warming or AIDS research.

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