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Future potential

Nor is this a purely historical effect from the early years of Linux. We're still seeing Moore's Law driving down prices and enfranchising whole new classes of users. One good example of that is the Raspberry Pi mini-computer system. It offers the basic power of a PC on a tiny board, and for a minuscule price. That means that not only can ordinary people – children, even – buy one without having to think of the cost, but schools, too, can contemplate buying one for every student, something that's prohibitively expensive even with today's relatively cheap PCs.

It's not clear yet what effect, if any, Raspberry Pi will have on education, but it seems likely that it or one of the many similar ultra-low-cost systems will allow new kinds of projects with new groups of contributors to arise – in emerging economies, for example.

And things are already moving on even further. Here's a Kickstarter project that embodies the continuing progress possible thanks to Moore's Law in a very striking way. It's called Parallella, and it describes itself as a "Supercomputer For Everyone". It's not joking:

Once completed, the Parallella computer should deliver up to 45 GHz of equivalent CPU performance on a board the size of a credit card while consuming only 5 Watts under typical work loads. Counting GHz, this is more horsepower than a high end server costing thousands of dollars and consuming 400W.

Importantly, the entire system will be open:

  • Open Access: Absolutely no NDAs or special access needed! All architecture and SDK documents will be published on the web as soon as the Kickstarter project is funded.
  • Open Source: The Parallella platform will be based on free open source development tools and libraries. All board design files will be provided as open source once the Parallella boards are released.
  • Affordability: Hardware costs and SDK costs have always been a a huge barrier to entry for developers looking to develop high performance applications. Our goal is to bring the Parallella high performance computer cost below $100, making it an affordable platform for all.

Yes, that's a 45GHz supercomputer, supplied with Ubuntu as standard, for under $100. If Parallella manages to pull this off – and as a Kickstarter project, there's always the risk that it will fail to be fully funded, or that it will simply fail to execute properly – it will put an entirely new level of processing power in the hands of everyone, including students.

Potentially, that will allow a whole new generation of open source projects to be initiated by people who, until now, simply couldn't afford this kind of supercomputing power. Again, the main benefactor here is open source: if a company needs a supercomputer, it will generally buy it now, since it can afford to pay top whack for current models. What Parallella brings about – thanks to Moore's Law – is the democratisation of that kind of supercomputing power, so that it is no longer the exclusive preserve of well-funded commercial outfits.

It's important to note that it's Moore's Law acting on hardware that provides these benefits, rather than any kind of exponential change in software, which benefits indirectly. Moreover, analogues of Moore's Law for other kinds of hardware are also starting to take shape. One example is 3D printing, where prices are falling steadily. Another is in the world of genome sequencing – elucidating the billions of chemical "letters" that go to make up DNA's double helix – which is seeing something even more dramatic:

You may know that the cost to sequence a human genome is dropping, but you probably have no idea how fast that price is coming down. The National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the US National Institute of Health, has compiled extensive data on the costs of sequencing DNA over the past decade and used that information to create two truly jaw-dropping graphs. NHGRI’s research shows that not only are sequencing costs plummeting, they are outstripping the exponential curves of Moore’s Law. By a big margin.

That means that the cost of sequencing your genome – or of any other organism – will soon be within the reach of everyone. Will that create a global community of open source biohackers, led by a new Linus with a desktop sequencer (and perhaps a Parallella supercomputer) in his or her bedroom? The experience of free software suggests it will, and teaches us that we should never underestimate the simple power of Moore's Law to drive unexpected and revolutionary changes.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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