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R&D Gems

Companies are already lining up to adopt some of the coolest technologies from university research labs

By Gary H. Anthes
January 31, 2000 12:00 PM ET

You can almost hear the paradigms shifting way up in those ivory towers. At the University of Virginia, they're inventing a "worldwide virtual computer." At the University of California, it's a "planet-scale, self-organizing" system. And at Carnegie Mellon University, they call it an "invisible halo of computing."
While researchers at each of these universities are pursuing their visions in very different ways, at a fundamental level, they all are dreaming the same dream for the 21st century. They say that computers will disappear yet be everywhere, that virtually every person and thing will have digital connections to every other person and thing and that the pain and risks of computer use will greatly diminish. They say the impact on computer managers and users will be profound.
The vision stretches far into the future by information technology standards -- 10 years at the University of California at Berkeley -- but some capabilities are scheduled for prototyping in the next year or so. And the University of Virginia has already found real-world users for Legion, its virtual computer.
"This research is moving us in the right direction," says Leonard Kleinrock, a computer scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and one of the fathers of the Internet. "We are going to have distributed intelligence, distributed knowledge. Internet services will be everywhere, always available, always on, but most of all, invisible, just like electricity is."
Legion: A Worldwide Virtual Computer
University of Virginia
"We need vast amounts of computer power, and there are problems we won't even touch unless we know the computer power is there," says Michael Crowley, a scientist at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. For example, a job that models protein-folding can run for 12 hours on a supercomputer, so Scripps asks Legion to roam the country sniffing out spare computer cycles.
"We just say, 'Legion, run it,' and it finds machines that are open, finds the correct executable, gets all the input files over there, runs the job and brings the output back," Crowley says.
Legion ( ) is a highly flexible, wide-area operating system designed to build a virtual computer from millions of distributed hosts and trillions of objects -- while presenting the image of a single computer to the user.
Originally developed for U.S. government scientists, it is now finding use in private labs and will eventually move to mainstream commercial use, says Legion architect Andrew Grimshaw, director of the Institute for Parallel Computation at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Legion applies many of the object-based interoperability principles

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