The Data Center in Your Living Room

European and Australian researchers want to build a giant P2P network on the basis of TV set-top boxes, Computerworld Australia reported this week. The so-called Nanodatacenters project is based on the idea that you don’t need giant data centers as long as you have increasingly powerful devices in millions of living rooms, capable of doing so much more than suffering through all those Law & Order re-runs.

Nanodatacenters is part of the FP7 research program, which is funded by the EU to the tune of several billion euros per year and covers everything from advances in agriculture to space programs. Nanodatacenter’s goals are also rather broad. A researcher told Computerworld that the set-top box network could be used to power anything from a Flickr-type of service to an online gaming platform. Of course, there are also interesting use cases for online video, ranging from HD delivery to huge, decentralized libraries of on-demand content.

The idea of tapping into the idle resources of end users isn’t entirely new. Distributed computing initiatives like [email protected] have been utilizing unused processing power for years, and file-sharing made the distributed delivery of video and other types of media popular. However, most of these efforts involved personal computers. Nanodatacenters is instead focusing on set-top boxes, which are becoming increasingly powerful, complete with fast processors and huge hard disks. Unlike PCs, however, most set-top boxes are always on and always connected, idling along while we go off and do things other than watch TV.

There’s another factor that could help to turn set-top boxes into P2P clients: Most of these platforms are using Linux under the hood, making it easier to mesh them together. In fact, Nanodatacenters wants to use Linux-style virtualization to keep your programming guide separate from the data center part of the machine.

The project also wants to improve on existing P2P technologies in order to make your living room data center less of a burden to your ISP and make it play nice with traditional CDN infrastructures. The project has already signed up a number of research partners, among them Israeli P2P caching startup Oversi and dutch electronics maker Thomson, which is active in the set-top box market. Also part of the team: the research arm of Spanish telecom giant Telefonica.

There’s apparently no broadcaster on board yet, but one would think that the BBC and other European networks are keeping an eye on the project, especially given the fact that they’ve been exploring similar P2P approaches. There are some interesting ways broadcasters could use a vast network of distributed storage and computing boxes. One that comes to mind is HD, which hasn’t been tackled by existing online video delivery platforms. HD streaming just doesn’t work, and true HD downloads still eat up massive amounts of costly bandwidth. A P2P-based set-top box delivery platform for HD downloads could be the holy grail for which everyone’s been searching.

Another use case could be a decentralized storage infrastructure for video content. The BBC has been toying with the idea of letting everyone record over-the-air digital television and then swapping shows among viewers, eventually creating a decentralized Tivo that would offer on-demand access to thousands of hours of TV content. Nanodatacenters sounds like a project that could help make this idea a reality.