The project, dubbed PlanetLab, consists of about 160 networked computers around the world, with plans to have more than 1,000 machines soon. So far, equipment is based at 65 sites in 16 countries.
While PlanetLab uses the existing Internet for moving data, it integrates its own routers and servers. That gives researchers the opportunity to see how new applications behave at a global scale and closely monitor the inner-workings of the network as new ideas are tested.
On Tuesday, organizers for the first time released details of the project and announced Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP Labs will join Intel Corp. as a corporate participant. About 60 research centers worldwide are participating.
In the early days of the Internet, new technologies were tested by simply adding them to the network. If anything went awry, only a few researchers, universities and government agencies would notice.
It's a different story today as the Internet has become an engine of the global economy, said Larry Peterson, a computer scientist at Princeton University.
"It's so successful and so many people depend on it, it's become impossible to go to the core of the Internet today and make radical changes to introduce the kind of new services we see people wanting to deploy," he said.
PlanetLab is essentially a testbed for trying out new services or global applications, ranging from familiar tasks like content distribution and searches to grid computing and next-generation addressing systems.
The key is constructing "overlays" to the existing network and running software that provides researchers with a slice of processor power, disk space and bandwidth from all participating machines.
"It's the ability to get even a little bit of time on a thousand machines spread over the world that's really the value," Peterson said.
The project, which is based at Princeton, started more than a year ago with Intel's donation of 100 computers. It's now open to educational and research labs, including those of companies that contribute bandwidth and machines.
By Matthew Fordahl