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Expert View: Inside The Mob

I didn't really know what to expect when I showed up at the gym at the University of San Francisco last Saturday to participate in the first "Flash Mob Computing" event. But it turned out to be one of those incredible days where I learned a lot, met some great people, and had a blast. During all of this, history was being made as several hundred PCs were networked together to form one of the largest supercomputers.

The idea was an instant, do-it-yourself supercomputer that would be assembled out of individuals' PCs and only be operating for a period of a few hours. In fact, that was the idea behind a course offered at USF and taught by scientist Pat Miller, who works full-time at the Lawrence Livermore Labs across the bay. Students in his class got more than they bargained for when they signed up last year.

The scene when I arrived at the gym at 8:30 in the morning was what I would call controlled chaos, and plenty of activity for that hour of the morning. Not that many people were carting in their own computers " I guess the thought of having all your personal data exposed to the mob was unsettling to some. I was carrying two laptops, care of two vendors who had loaned the equipment to me for other reviews: Acer's Aspire and a new whitebook from D&H. They joined a really diverse collection of IBM Thinkpad laptops, Dell laptops and desktops, Toshibas, and some whiteboxes that were of every shape and size, including some 100 machines from e-Loan, a local company which was one of the prime supporters of the event.

Those of us that BYOL didn't have to worry that our data would be disrupted. Every machine that was part of the mob was given a boot CD and the hard disk wasn't touched. But I guess it is hard to tell someone whose entire life is on their laptop this.

Some of the student projects were naked computers: no case, no frumpery, just the boards and connectors to cobble everything together. The most interesting PCs were the water-cooled overclockers, one that had its own life-support external case that I guess held the coolant reservoir or something. Others were clearly custom-built jobs with fancy cases.

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