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Simple but brilliant idea to harness vast reserves of processing power in every home

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Written by: David Clensy | Posted 14 December 2016 10:33

Simple but brilliant idea to harness vast reserves of processing power in every home

Like all the best ideas, Gareth Williams had his great brainwave while enjoying a pint in a pub with a friend. 

He had been fascinated by a project led by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute), which had recently asked people around the world to share the unused processing power of their home computers to help them carry out the massive computational equations needed to help them to narrow down the search for alien life elsewhere in the Cosmos.

“I had my mobile phone on the table in front of me in the pub, and I thought about the massive computational capabilities available even in a modern day smart phone like my iPhone. It got me to thinking, if there was a way to harness some of the vast reserves of under-used computational processing power available out there in everyone’s phones, laptops and PCs, not to mention in all those under-used corporate servers, just think of the super-computing power that could be put at your disposal.”

Gareth set to work to make his vision a reality. With a background of working in high-flying management jobs for mobile company Orange as well as a string of different sized software firms, he felt he had what it took to go it alone with his own start-up, and so Yellow Dog was born.

Three years ago his fledgling firm became one of the first to take roost in the comfortable, encouraging recesses of SetSquared’s Engine Shed incubation hub, and from a simple idea in the pub, Gareth has seen Yellow Dog grow into one of the most exciting tech propositions to come out of the city in years.

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He has tapped into a niche that could only really exist in the artistically-driven but simultaneously ultra-techie ecosystem of Bristol – taking on people’s untapped reserves of computational processing power around the world, particularly in the early stage in the larger corporate servers, and through a flurry of online virtual connections, he has effectively created a global supercomputer. He then effectively sells on this computational capacity to a range of 3D animation studios, film companies and architectural practices who now need to create slick fly-through animations of yet-to-be-built projects.

After discussing his initial idea about creating a supercomputer network across the internet with a friend, an academic at the University of the West of England who is an expert in the animation industry, Gareth quickly discovered just how useful his brainwave could be to the city’s countless animators.

“He explained to me that the rendering process for animators, which effectively involves smoothing off the finished product by cleaning up every pixel and making sure it is correctly coloured, takes a massive amount of computational processing,” Gareth explains as he takes a break from his work in the vibrant canteen of the Engine Shed.

“I knew that there was this massive capacity out there for unused or underused computers – 30 per cent of all the capacity of servers ever bought by businesses is never actually used – so it was simply a case of marrying up the two ideas.”
He makes it sound easy, but after three years of hard work he has built up a strong network of 470 customers in the wider animation industry, and signed up many thousands of underused computers and servers around the world that can be tapped into via a simple Yellow Dog application.

“We have created a safe, secure process whereby the application tells us that it is either a time of day when the computer isn’t being used, or that there is sufficient capacity for us to make use of the computer, and our system simply divides up a rendering project – often literally frame by frame, and sends it out to be rendered at the same time on many different computers. It then pulls it all back together saving the animators a great deal of time and computing power.”
The rapidly developing firm now employs five people at the Engine Shed headquarters, as well as a second technical team of eight developers in Lithuania.

“The Engine Shed has been a brilliant environment for us to grow, there is so much peer support, as well as the great benefit of the support given to us by SetSquared,” he says. “But I think perhaps by late next year we will have grown sufficiently to be needing to look for our own place – though I’m determined that we should remain in Bristol. It makes sense for us to be here in the city.”

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The longer term plan for Gareth is to see his creation take on a life of its own.

“I’ve been building it up for the last few years, and I would hope ultimately to see some sort of acquisition for the business, perhaps in the next two to three years,” he says. “In the meantime, we want to set up an office in the United States within the next six to nine months, that will rapidly accelerate our growth internationally.”

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