The sharing economy, or collaborative consumption movement, if you prefer, has taken over the startup scene thanks to flashy names like Airbnb, GetAround, and TaskRabbit. Sharing your homes, cars, and chores has been both an environmental and economic reaction.
Turns out, you can share more than the tangibles in your life. Portland-based startup CPUsage wants to take your “extra” computing power, pay you for it, and redistribute it to those who really need it.
“The idea is that there are so many computers around the world that sit idle most of the day,” says co-founder Jeff Martens. “In the U.S. alone, there are 250 million PCs – and most of us let those computers sit idle most of the time. And even when we do use them, the average person is using about five percent or less of the CPU’s capabilities.”
“We harness that unused processing power and we repurpose it and sell it to companies with high through-put and high performance needs.” Business video or data visualization platforms are just a couple of examples customers who take advantage of CPUsage’s service of redistributing your unused computing power.
As ingenious as reusing and recycling leftover CPU power is, it’s not CPUsage’s idea. Martens and fellow co-founder Matt Wallington tell me that the concept comes courtesy of NASA and was first publicly used by SETI@home, a Space Sciences Laboratory project that redistributes computing power in the search for extra-terrestrial life. But the startup’s own application of the idea came when Martens was working at an electronic design automation company and a friend at Sun Microsystems complained about how long it took to run his simulations.
“He was like, “look, we’re the most sophisticated server company in the world, I have all the computer power at my fingertips that I need, and it still takes me 14 hours to run a test. There’s got to be a better way,’” Martens says. He and Wallington connected and decided to pursue the project. “I was attending some different startup events trying to network and meet people, and I met Jeff, and heard his idea and the technologies behind it,” says Wallington, who previously worked at Intel for 10 years. “I had experience working in the area, and it really interested me.”
On the supply side, CPUsage is like a mechanical turk worker program, except you really do… absolutely nothing. Users who are invited into the program simply download CPUsage’s proprietary software, go through the standard installation process, and then sit back, relax, and use their PCs as usual. The program will run in the background and pull back if necessary so your use priorities come first. A taskbar toggle also tells you how much money you earned and how much power the software is using.
“We want it to be as unintrusive as possible, so we provide a little status window down in the tray you can click on to see it’s running, see what you’ve earned, but otherwise it’s just running in the background,” says Martens. “When you restart your computer, it automatically starts up in the background, and if you go above a certain usage, we’ll automatically shut off so that your performance isn’t affected.”
At the moment, the software is only available for Windows users, but Linux and OS X are on the roadmap, and Windows 8 is in testing. Despite these limitations, the request list to be a part of the CPUsage supply side is long – incredibly long. The team didn’t offer numbers, but said that the number of current participants is “in the thousands,” and that the waiting list is “many multiples of that.” Suppliers aren’t limited to your average PC user either: Louisiana State University is an early partner, offering up the extra, unused power its campus holds – its computer labs are open for some 20 hours a day, always on, and are used for an average of three. That’s a lot of wasted power that CPUsage can repackage and redistribute to those high needs outlets, those who need to use video encoders or medical simulators.
Video encoding is CPUsage’s big sell right now, and it’s a great example of the power of the grid. “There’s the opportunity for [companies] to drastically reduce their queue length, and that’s because we’re inherently parallel,” Martens explains. “So if you have to do 2,000 videos and encode them into five different formats, that’s 10,000 encodings. We could in theory do that on 10,000 computers. And then you get all 10,000 of them done in the same time it takes to do just one.”
While interest is high, CPUsage is riding the supply and demand line as tightly as it can. The startup wants to be able to offer those supplying power decent paychecks, and grow the interest in certain regions high enough so that when the time to flip the switch comes, they have enough interest on both sides of their model. For the moment, they’re also keeping things stateside to avoid the hassle of dealing with EU regulations regarding data transfer outside of its borders.
CPUsage, which raised a $1 million seed round led by Bay Area investors, is content to continue its calculated growth. “There isn’t a whole lot of value in haphazardly letting any computer into our grid; it doesn’t mean anything if we haven’t shown the demand side how to utilize this power,” says Martens. “We’ll get there, but right now we want to keep it a closed, exclusive system. But we’ll get there.”