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Tracey E.Schelmetic

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

[August 8, 2001]

Brother, Can You Spare Some Processing Power?

So you gave to United Way at the office, bought wrapping paper from a kindergartner last Christmas, treated an out-of-work dot commer to a latte last week and even gulped down some sugary lemonade hawked by the kids next door last Saturday afternoon. Are you feeling virtuous? Don't you're not done giving yet.

The next great donation you can make is that of your computer's downtime. While you're at lunch, in meetings or sleeping, your computer sits idle, quietly displaying its screen saver, wishing it had something exciting to do. Now, it does.

Participating in a distributed computing project is becoming the chic thing to talk about at parties, just after botox injections to combat wrinkles and just before a discussion regarding whether it's environmentally irresponsible to own an SUV. Organizations whose job it is to crunch very large amounts of data have discovered that if they farm data units out to the PCs of volunteers, they can tie thousands, even millions, of computers together and essentially replicate the effects of a fantastically large supercomputer. An offshoot of peer-to-peer technology, distributed computing collects unused time on a network of computers linked via the Internet (and a central administration Web site) and uses the processing power for a number of worthy causes.

FightAIDSatHome is a research partnership between Entropia, a company that builds distributed computing networks, and the Olson laboratory. Entropia has developed a computer model of the AIDS virus and the potential drugs and drug combinations that could theoretically be used to fight the virus. Your computer, when linked up to FightAIDSatHome, models the evolution of drug resistance and tries to design new compounds to defeat the computerized virus.

distributed.net is a company that develops software to enable distributed computing projects. Currently, the company hosts several projects dedicated to finding the keys to complex security codes and mathematical problems, and modest cash prizes are awarded to individuals who come up with the correct results. The extremely high technical level of this site, however, means chances are good that the people who participate in the projects hosted by distributed.net probably don't attend the sort of parties where chitchat about the problems in Macedonia occurs. These are the type of people, I imagine, who find Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time to be a light summer read.

The largest distributed computing project, though, was created by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Called SETI@home and administered out of the University of California at Berkeley, the group farms out chunks of data via the Internet to participants' computers. The data, which are essentially recordings of radio signals from space collected by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, are delivered to your desktop PC in "work units." While you are not using your computer and it goes into screen-saver mode, your PC begins checking the recorded radio signals for patterns that might indicate signals created by extraterrestrial intelligence mixed in with the general space noise. (Think Jodie Foster listening to radio space noise via a headset in the film Contact, which portrays the SETI program.)

Currently, SETI@home boasts 3,191,201 users in 226 countries and commands more than 25 teraflops of processing power. Since the project's inception, users have donated a total of 689,139 years of CPU time. While the majority of participants are people like myself who volunteer a home PC and return a few data units per week, the top 10 list of participants (with SETI itself in the number one spot, obviously) includes the Intel System Software Performance Labs and the Sun Microsystems Enterprise Technology Centergroups with more extra processing power leftover than many companies use in a decade. The SETI@home volunteer need not run the data units off a single computer; many computers can be linked together under one account to produce larger and faster results. A friend of mine, an IT professional, uses a mostly idle backup server at work, linked together with his home PC, to produce fast results and, as a result, has deservedly muscled into the top ten percent of SETI volunteers. Because the users are ranked (all 3.2 million of them), the site spawns a competitive environment that has even caused a few people who never learned how to play nice to hack the system in an attempt to move their names up the list.

If you'd like to volunteer some spare computing but wish there was something in it for you beyond the satisfaction of discovering an alien radio traffic report ("there's a slowdown near Betelgeuse today, folks, and watch out for a wrecked spaceship in the right lane just outside the Horsehead Nebula"), you may be interested in a project that promises cash to the triumphant searcher. Do you know what a Mersenne prime number is? Neither do I, but you can search for it and win $100,000 if your computer is the first to stumble across it. According to the Web site GIMPS (The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search), a Mersenne prime number is a 10 million digit prime number. Thus far, four of them have been found, the largest one being 26972593-1. If you, like me, are still trying to figure out how fast the train that left Boston at 11:06 a.m. is traveling, ventures like this make your head hurt. On the other hand, your computer ostensibly knows what it's doing and $100,000 is nothing to yawn at.

So if you're content with flying Windows or a slideshow of cute baby animals as your screensaver, then distributed computing may not be for you. On the other hand, if you've already dried up your repertoire of political small talk and environmental opinions, you may need something interesting to talk about at your next social gathering. Like Mersenne prime numbers, for example.

The author invites comment at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com and begs you not to discuss botox injections if you ever run into her at a cocktail party.

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