With more than a billion people now connected to the internet, Sun Microsystems plans to kick-start a new era of computing power as a commodity - like electricity or water on tap - through its ambitious Retail Grid for home and small office users. The Silicon Valley-based computer maker will launch the service in the United States by the end of next month, when its new facility in New Jersey harnesses the power of hundreds of AMD Opteron processor-based Sun servers for pay-per-use utility computing nationwide. 'Eventually, we will be building similar grids in Asia and Europe,' said David Yen, Sun's executive vice-president for scalable systems. Mr Yen said the Sun Retail Grid service would be a bargain for users who plugged in, as computing utility would be offered at US$1 per central processing unit (CPU) an hour, with a set usage of a minimum number of hours, and storage utility at US$1 per gigabyte a month. He said the economies of scale passed on to the consumer, since Sun was responsible for building the grid, testing and maintenance, installing software patches and operating system upgrades, and ensuring security. Applications geared for the Retail Grid would initially consist of computer-intensive jobs such as computer-aided design simulation and investment analysis. The service could also be opened up to high-performance, multiple-location gaming applications, since the utility was already internet-based. Paul Li Wing-hei, Sun's marketing director for Greater China, said the service would most likely be offered in Asia with network service provider partners who would have more expertise with utility billing and account management practices. Grid computing technology connects pools of computers, storage and networks, enabling enterprise users to efficiently allocate all available data and application resources based on changing business needs. This model borrows from modern electrical grids in the way it combines geographically-distributed resources to generate more power on demand. The grid is designed to render almost anything in IT (processing power, data, web services, storage space, applications or devices) as a low-cost 'grid service'. The increased availability of always-on broadband internet connections in many countries has helped get the grid concept out of the labs and into the service of businesses in the past few years. In enterprises, grid computing can employ clusters of cheap connected servers to offer processing power far in excess of the world's largest supercomputers. US-based analyst firm Insight Research estimated global grid spending to grow from US$714.9 million last year to about US$19.2 billion in 2010. 'Sun's offering is completely transparent at the retail level. What you pay is US$1 per CPU per hour, and what you get for that is clearly defined,' said Stuart Wells, Sun's vice-president of strategic development and Sun financing. 'It's analogous to the cellphone business model.' Sun is already working with large corporate customers from many industries, including financial services and oil and gas, to build and provide internal grid computing utility infrastructure. The company has been rolling out its Sun Grid Centres in various US locations since last year.