Most everyone is in favor of networks these days. But current networks are quite stupid – they’re nothing more than pipes through which information flows. That may change soon with a new networking application I heard of recently.
It’s not an official product yet, but the application, code named SentientNET, is an interesting collaboration between CE Software and several Soviet programmers who are part of an organization called EleKlub. EleKlub isn’t exactly a company, since private companies are still frowned upon in the USSR, but is instead a club of local programmers in Minsk interested in exchanging ideas with Western programmers. The application can determine the CPU load of all Macs on a network (LocalTalk is acceptable, but EtherTalk is better) and then have local programs execute CODE resources on an unused remote machine and receive the results back. The Soviet programmers came up with the basic idea for SentientNET because powerful computers are extremely rare in the Soviet Union, and SentientNET allows them to turn a small network of Macs into the equivalent of a mainframe.
The practical value of SentientNET is that if I’ve got a processor-intensive application that would normally bog my Mac down for an hour, SentientNET would automatically divy up the workload between all the machines on my network, giving more work to those that are unused, less to those that are doing something else. My application would take far less time to run, because all the other Macs would have done a large proportion of the work and reported the results back to my machine. SentientNET will create quite a bit of network traffic and thus prefers a fast network like EtherTalk. However, because LocalTalk networks are so common and inexpensive, the programmers plan to make SentientNET self-configure to the network type, so if you use LocalTalk, SentientNET will send smaller jobs across the network so as not to bring down other network applications. If you’re still having trouble visualizing this, think about DataClub from IBS. DataClub creates a virtual disk that everyone on the network shares. SentientNET does exactly the same thing, but with CPU cycles instead of disk space. With DataClub, if you add a hard drive, you’ve increased the size of your virtual disk. With SentientNET, if you add a Mac, particularly a powerful one, you’ve increased the power of your virtual CPU. Pretty snazzy!
From what I can tell so far, SentientNET should work over any AppleTalk network, including the wireless scheme mentioned in the Piggyback Portable article. I guess the major restriction right now is that SentientNET can only work within a zone, but that shouldn’t be a big problem for most people. Applications won’t have to be rewritten to work with SentientNET, but it wouldn’t help a good number of current programs because they simply don’t require that much power. Users will retain control over their own Macs, so SentientNET can be configured to leave your Mac alone even if the CPU usage is low in case you don’t want to run with even a small slowdown.
As cool as it is, SentientNET isn’t a completely new concept. Recently, IBM, DEC, HP, Groupe Bull, and Siemens-Nixdorf demonstrated a similar scheme by which an application ran in a network layer using the processing power of workstations from each manufacturer. In addition, Apple has an internal program called SchoolTalk, I think, which allows an instructor to run a program on a remote Mac over a network. Apparently, the hard part is executing CODE resources, which programs like Timbuktu and Carbon Copy can’t do. I’m not positive of this, not being a network guru, but that’s what friend who should know claims. SchoolTalk is not as complete as SentientNET will be, but it’s a start, so Apple may come out with something like at some point too. It’s an incredible selling point for Macintosh networks (“Buy five Macintosh computers, get one supercomputer.”) and would endear Apple to the power hungry crowd that is thinking about switching to workstations from NeXT and Sun.
Oh, I just thought I’d mention that everyone should read the entire “About…” card this week. Cheers!
Alexandr Tchlevsky — [email protected]
COMMUNICATIONS WEEK — 25-Mar-91, pg. 20