Party cloudy future

Intel has recently announced the “Pine Trail” platform for Netbook and Nettop computers, which would allow for ever cheaper (albeit, lower powered) computers for specific Internet-oriented tasks. Under Pine Trail, the CPU, GPU, and Memory controller are integrated into a single chip, which is then coupled with a new southbridge chip called “Tiger Point” will allow the whole platform to be based on a two-chip solution, rather than the three chips in the current Diamondville architecture, lowering its price and, more importantly, it’s power consumption.

While Intel is positioning this as a solution for developing countries and medium to large businesses, and as an alternative to NVidia’s ION platform (which includes a seperate GPU, the 9400M) I submit that this could be an important step in a new type of home environment: Local Cloud computing.

Consider the typical “westernized” family. Father, mother, two point four kids, broadband Internet. The family budget, parent’s email, and work-from-home functions and carried out the computer in the Parent’s room. Junior and Juniorett do their school work and social-network posts on computers in their respective rooms, the family photo albums and streaming media are localized in the living room HTPC and so on. Under the current scheme, the family would buy (at least) four full-fledged computers to answer these needs, plus additional hardware, software, and peripherals as necessary. Assuming¬† the average life span of a computer is about three years, this family would endup buying 1.3 new computers per year. Roughly US$1000 worth, in our present prices.

But of course, they don’t NEED four computers. The some total processing power required to do all these tasks can be met quite easily by one decent-sized machine. It does not take much power to write a term paper, to surf the net, or to use twitter. It takes a little more power to play HD movies, but it’s a dedicated job for the processor. IE, it’s a fair assumption that while you are playing a HD movie, you are also watching the HD movie, so you’re not really doing anything else on the machine. Not that it really matters, either. A typical Intel Core i7 processor with it’s quad cores could easily handle playing the movie and composing email at the same time. No sweat. In terms of available raw power, there’s very little that the average user can do to seriously task a modern CPU (With the exception of playing games or serious graphics/video encoding jobs), so having four of those in one household is overkill.

Instead what you could do is have ONE powerful computer (probably the HTPC) and three Nettops or even Netbooks. The HTPC has one property which is compelling for this: Although it’s usually always on, for most of the time, it stands ideal. This makes it a perfect candidate to serve as a file server, a media server, a print server, etc. Of course, this is nothing new. The home server idea has been around for years, with various degrees of success in its implementations. It seems that it’s just a little hard to get all this stuff working in a way to is easy to setup and use for the average non-techie.¬† Configuring remote print servers is something that the average tech-support person does regularly, but faced with a new installing a TCP port on their machine, most users tend to simply give up.

But imagine a home server where the server serves not only files and printers, but also actual applications. Word processing, email programs, anything that can be squeezed into an applet, a servlet,¬† AJAX, ASP, etc. And furthermore, a server that can do all that simply, easily, with as little “scary details” as possible, and using an interface so simply that even a grandmother can use it, and so resource undemanding that it would run on anything that runs a web browser.

This is where cloud computing and home computing need to meet. The power behind things like things like Google Docs is that they allow you to use complex applications in a very simple environment. It’s a good idea, but limited: Mot everyone wants Google to read their documents, and there are some things (like streaming media) simply don’t work very well when they have to be done on-line. A “Home Application Server” which combines the benefits of centralized computing, with the locality of media, and the ease of use of a web browser could be the ideal computing environment for the home. Allowing the family to get the most of out of it’s resources, without the waste of duplicating so much hardware.

There are other benefits as well: A central server that runs most of the Internet interaction for the family is an ideal place for a web-caching service to make browsing faster, and updated firewall and virus scanner to make it safer, and content filtering and monitoring software to let parents keep an eye on what their children are doing on the net. It also allows for a much easier upgrade path: USB3 devices can let a family add gigabytes of storage to the server at a fraction of the cost it would take to add them to separate computers. And when the time comes to upgrade the home server, they can be simply be moved to the new hardware with minimal downtime.

With simple, cheap “access point” computers sharing the resources consumers reap the benifits of lower computing costs and electricity bills, while the environment benefits from having less obsolete computers being dumped every year. As we become more and more conscious of the impact computers have on our pockets and air, I can definitely see this becoming a major trend for the upcoming decade.