SAN PABLO — In this troubled corner of the East Bay, far from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, community college students are trying to put together the most powerful laptop computer the world has seen.
Led by Contra Costa College professor Tom Murphy, the handful of students are meeting outside of class, working to piece together four quad-core processors inside an aluminum attache case. Murphy is calling the computer "LittleAl," and he hopes it will land the college a Guinness World Record in a category not yet invented.
"If we hit it, we will be the first ones to hit it forever," said Murphy, an energetic Santa Claus look-alike who spent years in the high-tech world before turning to teaching nine years ago. "That's pretty cool."
If LittleAl succeeds, it will have at least 96 gigabytes of memory and possibly a mind-blowing 128 gigabytes, making the standard laptop look like an abacus in comparison. Murphy plans to finish the computer in time for a conference next month.
Of course, LittleAl will not be pretty, or comfortable. The silver Zero Halliburton case looks like the sort of thing that would be handcuffed to someone's wrist — "the one preferred by spies worldwide," Murphy said — and its bulk likely would prevent the computer from fitting on many laps.
In this instance, appearance hardly matters to Murphy, although he does delight in his eclectic collection of leather, metal and vinyl cases for future projects. He has vowed, for example, to build a supercomputer in a blue cosmetics pouch with "Adrian's Colleges of Beauty" printed on the side.
But Murphy's primary goal is to train his students in computer skills rarely learned outside the classrooms and labs of vaunted research universities. His Contra Costa College students have taken note of the opportunity.
"This sort of thing you expect to go to a (University of California campus) and be able to do," said freshman Matthew Choa, of Pinole. "Someone like (Murphy) could be at a top school. But here he is, helping us."
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't expecting something this grand," added freshman Hasani Groce, who grew up in Oakland.
California's community colleges enroll nearly 3 million students, the vast majority of the state's undergraduates, and grant certificates in dozens of professions. But, rightly or wrongly, the campuses generally are not seen as players in fields such as high-powered computing.
And yet it was one of Murphy's students who beat out professionals in a programming contest at a developers' conference last year. The instructor has reveled in his mission to prepare students for careers in the Silicon Valley and animation studios such as Pixar.
"They bring to this endeavor everything a four-year student does," Murphy said. "The challenge is giving them the confidence. That's why I'm never, ever going to leave this place."
One key to the LittleAl project has been the generosity of Murphy's industry contacts. Semiconductor giant Intel, for example, has donated many of the laptop's components.
"Tom is very innovative, and he thinks outside the box," said Zander Sprague, an Intel liaison with colleges and universities who has worked closely with Murphy and his students. "He's constantly pushing the boundaries of what's possible."
Although Murphy said the Guinness record is a realistic goal, he notes that students will learn important lessons about multicore computers regardless of the results.
"Part of the reason this works for us is that we're not trying to make a dime on it," he said. "We may hit a brick wall here, but we're going to learn as much as we can from that wall."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.