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Boffins dream up Sleeptalking PC standby-mode tech

USB NIC gizmo handles (some) BitTorrent on its own

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Computer boffins at Microsoft Research and UC San Diego have proposed the introduction of "sleep talking" technology, allowing PCs to carry out network tasks such as BitTorrent downloads or VoIP/IM listening while in energy-saving standby mode.

The prototype gumstix-based Somniloquy "sleep talking" network interface

Sniffs your packets while you sleep.

The kit, catchily dubbed Somniloquy, involves putting an always-on low power CPU into a PC's network interface. This little machine runs an embedded OS such as Windows CE or Linux, and has some Flash storage of its own.

"Large numbers of people keep their PCs in awake mode even though the PCs are relatively idle for long blocks of time because they want to stay connected to an internal network or the Internet or both," says Yuvraj Agarwal of UC San Diego. "Most of the tasks that people keep their computers on for — like ensuring remote access and availability for virus scans and backup, maintaining presence on instant messaging (IM) networks, being available for incoming voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls, and file sharing and downloading — can be achieved at much lower power-use levels than regular awake mode."

Agarwal and colleagues from Microsoft Research presented their Somniloquy research and prototypes last week at the USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

According to the developers, the Somniloquy device can either wake up the host PC in response to network events, or handle them itself if suitable code "stubs" are written for it. Examples of application code stubs tested successfully by the team included IM, web downloads and BitTorrent file sharing. With reference to the latter apps, the Somniloquy team note that "a larger flash on the secondary processor allows the PC to sleep longer".

According to Agarwal and Co, "existing solutions for sleep-mode responsiveness such as Wake-On-LAN (WoL) have not proven successful 'in the wild'". They say that their plug-in Somniloquy gear is better because it can handle some apps without waking up the main machine, requires no alterations to its host platform, and can easily be fitted to existing machines using a plug-and-play USB interface.

Agarwal says that use of Somniloquy on a PC which normally stays on would translate to energy savings of "60 to 80 per cent" dependent on usage model. He proposes that the tech could be installed on NICs in future, avoiding the need for the present retrofit USB peripheral.

Full details for those interested are available courtesy of UC San Diego here (PDF). ®

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