Brother, Can You Spare Some Processing
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
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 email@example.com
and begs you not to discuss botox injections if you ever run into her at a