How Plura actually works, in layman’s terms

Plura is a pretty technical company, but in light of the recent situation with Digsby, we thought we’d take this chance to explain in simple terms how Plura actually works, in layman’s terms.  The following is also designed to address some of the common conceptual questions that we get from individuals.

So, what is Plura and how does it work?

A good way of understanding the goal of the Plura service is to compare it to car pooling.  We all have excess computing power on our PCs that we never use.  If we share our unused power, we can magnify the usefulness of our computers.

In fact, computer usage both at work and in the home continues to rise dramatically, year after year.  We all pay for broadband access, and we all pay for the electricity to run our machines.  We purchase the machines themselves as well, often at great expense.  But most of our time is spent in e-mail or the browser, or possibly a word processor.  These are not computationally intensive tasks.  There is a great deal of latent computing power that currently serves little or no use.  The fact is, most computers today waste power while they are active or idle.

Plura stitches thousands of machines together to harness their collective power.

The basic idea is that every machine has excess computing power, and that power can be provided by an individual to a Plura affiliate.  Plura then resells that computing power to our customers, and passes a percentage of that revenue back down to our affiliates, who can then reward the individuals who supplied the compute power.

What is the reward or benefit to the individual?  It depends on the affiliate.  If this affiliate is a non-profit or charityware application, the revenue will go to a charity because the individual’s motives are altruistic.  Affiliates might also offer individuals free software or upgrades, reward programs, or even dollars and cents via a micropayments platform.  That is largely up to the affiliate, though we do keep an eye on things to make sure that our Terms of Use are being followed.

Plura is the middleman in this whole process – we do the work of bringing 50,000 computers together as if they were one, and finding companies and organizations who are willing to pay for our collective processing power.

Another issue we get asked often has to do with to what extent Plura is “green” i.e. whether using Plura increases or decreases an individual’s carbon footprint.

Energy efficiency is an additional side-benefit of Plura.  To be clear, we’re not out to claim that we’re saving the world – using a PC, no matter how you slice it or dice it, is energy-intensive.  But that said, we are much, much greener than other large-scale computing providers, precisely because of the way we operate.

A lot has been written about the carbon footprint of large datacenters like Google’s.  By connecting to computers over the Web, Plura utilizes excess power, thereby turning waste into something useful.  This reuse of energy is starkly different than the energy footprint produced by traditional data centers.

That said, if as an individual you are concerned with being as green as possible, the best thing to do is to turn off your computer whenever you’re not using it.  But Plura does help better utilize the processing power that you inevitably generate whenever you are in fact using your PC.

In this post it’s also important to talk a little bit about privacy and control too.

Plura does not, in any way, shape or form, take over your computer, or interfere with your normal computing actions.  Plura kicks in when your computer is running but idle, making use of extra CPU cycles that would otherwise be wasted.  When you put your computer to sleep or turn your computer off, Plura stops running.  And the Plura application is a low priority application – meaning, it sits at the bottom of the food chain.  If you need your computing power for other tasks, Plura waits until there is excess capacity once again.

Plura does not have access to any of your personal information, passwords, etc. either.  In fact. no information at all, personal or otherwise, is accessed or recorded.  It is actually not even possible for our technology to compromise your machine, or any kind of server that you in turn have access to.

Plura is essentially just a piece of Java (computer code) that our affiliates drop into their applications (whether they are downloads or browser-based).  Plura is lightweight by design – it does not have the kinds of capabilities that would allow us or our affiliates to access files, distribute a virus, etc.

Plura is a lot like a music or video site, actually – you can listen to the music or play the video in the background while you are doing other things.  The music or video site cannot do anything besides play the music or video you selected.  It does not have access to your computer in any way.  But instead of using your computing power to display a video or play a song, Plura uses it to power our customers’ own products, services, and research projects.

Furthermore, our customers have zero access to our affiliates’ applications and our affiliates’ users.  Our affiliates and their users likewise have zero access to our customers.  The entire process is double-blind.

This is a very important point.  We are reselling computing power, but we are doing so in a way that is completely anonymous.  Individuals and affiliates are passing computing power up to Plura, but absolutely nothing is passed back.  The same goes for our customers – we provide them raw (essentially wholesale) processing power, but they have zero access to our infrastructure – they are merely purchasing our output.

A good metaphor, actually, is municipal water supply.  Water comes from many different sources, and depending on the source, may contain different minerals and even a few contaminates.  The city or municipality has invested in a plant which gathers and purifies the water and distributes it to customers.  The customers have no way of knowing where exactly the water came from – but whenever they turn on the faucet – good, safe, and clean water comes out.  And even if a malicious individual wanted to pollute the water supply, it’s an impossible task – the water only flows one way (and waste, another).

What haven’t we covered?  What questions do you have about the Plura service?  Pease let us know in the comments.

More about our affiliates and customers

In our previous blog post about Digsby, we wrote that

Although the relationship between our affiliates and their users is to a large degree out of our control, we think that we can contribute by being as clear and transparent as possible about what Plura is, how it works, and what our compute power is being used for.  We can also have a hand in setting and enforcing how affiliates present Plura to users.

In that post we outlined our new Terms of Use and our new affiliate auditing policy.  In this post, we want to talk a little bit about Plura’s affiliates and customers.

On the whole, our affiliates and our customers are wide-ranging.  On the affiliate side, they’re generally looking for a way to earn money or raise funds to support their ongoing efforts (both for-profit and not-for-profit).  On the customer side, they’re typically doing something research-oriented where they need to run very complicated math and modeling problems.

Our affiliates (the companies, services, projects and organizations that provide us with raw processing power in the first place) range from start-up Web services like Digsby to non-profits and educational institutions.

Superdonate, for example, encourages individuals to download and run their Plura-enabled desktop application as a way of providing donations to charitable causes, such as CARE, charity: water, and the Nature Conservancy.  Superdonate users are effectively turning idle CPU cycles into charitable gifts.

charities

Charities that benefit from Plura

Our customers, on the other hand, are doing everything from financial modeling to bioinformatics and fluid dynamics research.  And we’re definitely looking for new customers!

80legs is a good customer to talk about as an example because they’ve taken the compute power we give them, and they’ve built something pretty cool on top.  80legs is itself a startup, and they provide a Web-scale crawling and processing service.

Disclosure: Plura and 80legs share an investor, and 80legs has been of great help to us as a guinea pig ;)

If, for example, you were building a new search engine from scratch, and therefore needed to build and maintain and updated an index of all of the pages on the Web in order to return relevant results to users, 80legs would be an excellent choice.

Their own expertise is in Web crawling and processing, and they’re a very interesting company because they make crawling and processing possible for anyone or any company via a very simple request form on the Web.  This is a very non-trivial accomplishment for anyone who knows the space well.  It used to be that unless you could afford to build a supercomputer yourself, building something as ambitious as, say, a search engine – well, it was completely, totally out of reach.  We’re really excited about 80legs because they’re democratizing something that until now only major players like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have had the ability to do.

80legs’ own customers include yes, search engines – but also Semantic Web companies of various kinds, video sites, market research companies, academic institutions, etc. – some are for-profit and some are not-for-profit.  And the truth is that 80legs doesn’t have to get their processing power from us – their architecture can slurp in compute power from anywhere.  But they continue to choose us because we can power the 80legs service at an incredible price point and without a lot of the typical infrastructure and overhead involved in such an endeavor.

The bigger point here is that compute power is in fact being sold and distributed and redistributed across a variety of domains, with a variety of value-added services for specific use cases.  This is the ultimate vision for “cloud computing” – the idea that compute power will be ubiquitous, and as simple as plugging an extension cord into a wall socket.  Plura is the middle-man in all of this – we take compute power from our affiliates, stitch it together so that the entire grid behave like a single supercomputer, and then resell that processing power to our customers.

We’ll explain more in our next post about how our affiliates harvest compute power, and in the process we’ll hopefully dispel some of the misconceptions that have cropped up along the way.

Our response to the Digsby controversy + new Terms of Use, affiliate auditing

This past week saw a great deal controversy around our service, mostly as a result of this Lifehacker post.

Specifically, Lifehacker and a few other publications expressed anger and frustration at the fact that Digsby, one of our affiliates, uses Plura to leverage users’ latent CPU cycles and power computing nodes whose processing power we subsequently resell to companies such as 80legs.

In particular, there was a lot of back-and-forth around whether Digsby went far enough in disclosing this practice to users.  Last December Digsby explained in a lengthy blog post the different business models they were pursuing, and discussed the grid computing approach and Plura in detail.

The module turns on after your computer has been completely idle for 5 minutes (no mouse or keyboard movement).  It then turns off the instant you move your mouse or the press a key on the keyboard.  We did this so it would have absolutely no effect on your computer’s performance and only uses processing power while your computer is not being used.  It also runs as a “low priority” process so if any application on your computer asks for CPU power it will always get it before the research module gets it.  On laptops, it will use a much smaller portion of your CPUs overall processing power than it will on desktops.  It will also never turn on if your laptop is running on battery power.

So what exactly does it do?  It downloads a very small chunk of data and runs it through a mathematical algorithm to get an end result.  It then reports the result back and gets another chunk of data.  The process repeats on thousands of computers until the computation problem is solved.  The data it gets is kept in RAM while it is being processed so the module does not access your hard drive at any point.  It does not store any data on your computer and it does not access anything at all that identifies you personally.

The post also explained how users could opt-out of the research module (i.e Plura).

But what became clear, however, was that

  • Users never chose to opt-in (the research module was opt-out only, and this option was not surfaced prominently).
  • The blog was the only place where this practice was explicitly discussed, which meant that it slowly faded from memory and over time was less and less likely to be dug up by new users.
  • Disgruntled users weren’t engaged directly, leading to further unrest.

We at Plura insist on proactive and transparent communication with users on the part of every affiliate.  In fact, disclosure requirements are written into our own Terms of Use.  Respected grid computing projects like SETI@Home or Folding@Home have succeeded because their users understood the benefit of the project and willingly gave access to their latent CPU cycles.  Plura is no different.

We understand that few individuals actually read the terms for applications they install or employ on the Web.  We also understand that our business depends on our ability to leverage existing compute capacity via our affiliates and their users, and that any such arrangement must be consciously and explicitly approved if we are to succeed in the long-term.  We take this stuff very seriously, and we have taken it seriously since the very beginning.

Digsby has already made (and continues to make) several important changes to their product as a result, including but not limited to a new installer that addresses Lifehacker and others’ concerns.  We think that Digsby makes a great product, they have been a great partner for us, and we stand behind their efforts to allay users’ concerns and make their use of Plura more evident.  We hope that Digsby’s user base continues to grow, and that this controversy ultimately leads to a better product and a stronger community.

To that end, we are likewise making two important changes.  First, we are amending our own Terms of Use to include more strict and limiting language, requiring a greater degree of disclosure by our affiliates.  The bolded part below represents the new language; the non-bolded part represents the language that we had been previously using. We have added an additional sentence designed to be much mores specific about what does and does not count as full disclosure.

Affiliate agrees to fully disclose the effect of this Agreement to Users, to obtain Users consent for Plura to utilize their excess computer resources, and to protect their privacy as more fully described herein.  By “fully disclose”, Plura means that the Affiliate must make its use of Plura Code visibly apparent to the Affiliate’s Users upon each User’s first interaction with the Affiliate’s products or services.

Additionally, we are instituting a new auditing process to ensure that our Terms of Use are being met.  We pay our affiliates every month based on the number of cycles that they send our way, and each month, every affiliate who receives a check of $50 or more from Plura will be audited for compliance by a member of our team before being paid.  If the Terms of Use are not met, the affiliate agreement will be voided and the relationship will be ended.

One of the completely surprising things about this controversy has been that inquiries and affiliate signups have actually increased significantly as a result, which tells us that our service is fundamentally interesting to companies exploring new business models.  Furthermore, the added burden of disclosure does not seem to have scared anyone off.

We firmly believe with the proper disclosures are in place, we can continue to drive innovation across a wide range of projects that require supercomputer-grade capabilities, in concert with our affiliates and their users.

Thanks for reading this post, and please chime in below with your comments and opinions.  We’re committed to growing Plura’s capabilities, and we know that our success hinges on a trusting relationship between our affiliates and their users.  We want to be a part of the solution and the conversation, and we’re willing to go above and beyond in every way to make Plura a viable service with a strong reputation for honesty and transparency.

Digsby

Update: Digsby is updating their installer today (http://blog.digsby.com/archives/693) to make Plura more apparent to users.

We would like all Digsby users to know that we are currently talking to and working with the Digsby team to change the way Plura is integrated with their application. We have been informed by Digsby that Plura will become “opt-out” during installation, rather than being enabled by default.

We support this method of asking users to integrate with Plura and encourage all affiliates to use it. We are always fully committed to keeping people’s computers safe and secure, and hope to deliver on this commitment with this issue.

Potential Markets for Plura

As mentioned in our last post, we’re focusing on customer acquisition for the start of 2009.  To give you an idea of what types of customers we’re looking at, I thought I would give a quick rundown of what we’re currently working on or exploring:

Web-scale analysis: Applications that utilize the bandwidth on our nodes fit Plura very well.  This is a feature of Plura that tends to get glossed over, but is probably the coolest thing we can provide.  On top of the compute power our nodes have, they also have their own bandwidth.  Any application that uses this bandwidth gets access to thousands of separate Internet connections, which can be used to access the web in a myriad of ways.  One of our sister companies, Computational Crawling, is developing a platform that takes advantage of this feature.

Financial modeling: Although a lot of financial algorithmic trading relies on low latency, there are also a wide array of possibilities for more robust modeling.  For example, some modelers utilize genetic algorithms to create sophisticated models.  Such techniques fit well on Plura due to the low data:compute time ratio inherent to these algorithms.  One of our customers is developing such a package.

Bioinformatics: We’re really interested in exploring bioinformatics more.  Based on some brief research, there seems to be a lot of applications in this field that utilize parallel computing.  In particular, we’ve looked at BLAST and similar algorithms.  It appears that the BLAST algorithm can be broken into parallel components.  Unfortunately we haven’t looked at this field enough to know for sure, but it’s something we may consider in the future.

Oil and Gas Exploration: While some seismic analysis algorithms will not work on Plura, there are some that will, such as Kirchhoff migrations.  Developing a seismic implementation in Plura will take a good bit of work, but is a definite possibility.

In general, any application that uses a significant amount of compute time relative the data transferred or any application that can is embarassingly parallel will work very well on Plura.  We’ve mentioned just a few potential industries that can utilize Plura, but there are several more on top of these.  We’ll be looking for customers in one or more of these sectors in the coming year.

Happy 2009!

Happy new year to all our readers!  2008 was a big year for Plura.  Last year we managed to accomplish a lot of things, including:

  • Proving Plura’s underlying technology and business model
  • Acquiring several affiliates, including a few very popular sites and applications
  • Getting featured on GigaOm and HackerNews
  • Growing the size of our computing power to about 50,000 nodes

2009 figures to be an equally exciting year for us.  Since we’ve been able to flesh out a lot of our business on the affiliate side, we’re going to focus more heavily on existing and future customers.  Two of our beta customers will begin full-scale use of our computing power in the next couple of months.  We also plan to start increasing awareness of Plura to other potential customers and will be exploring various markets, such as oil and gas exploration, bioinformatics, and financial modeling, in this effort.  Of course, we will also be seeking out various non-profits that are in need of computing power for research projects.  If all of this goes to plan, we’ll be looking to expand the size of our compute network to accommodate the extra demand – possibly increasing our node count to 100,000 nodes or more.

We’ll keep the blog updated with news of our progress.  We hope everyone’s new year is fruitful and prosperous!

Plura awarded “Most Promising I.T. and Web 2.0 Company” at Rice Alliance Venture Forum

Award graphicAs mentioned in a previous post, we participated in the Rice Alliance I.T. and Web 2.0 Venture Forum this past Thursday.  I had the pleasure of representing our firm in the elevator pitches, where I gave a 90-second description of our business.  Based on this pitch, we were awarded “Most Promising I.T. and Web 2.0 Company”, along with 10 other firms (out of 55 total).  The event as a whole was a great experience.  We met a lot of interesting folks and got some great feedback on our business.

If you’d like to hear the pitch, you can do so here.



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