Saturday, May 10, 2008

I'm Donating My Unused Computer Processing Power to Science

I've just signed up on two sites that tap in to my laptop, using its unused computer processing power. The technology is a type of distributed computing, using multiple machines across a network to do a particular computation. David Anderson, founder of BOINC - the Berkely Open Infrastructure for Network Computing - says "There are half a billion personal computers in the world with processors that do nothing most of the time ... The combined strength of a tiny fraction of this unused computing power is greater than that of the world's largest supercomputer." By combining this power, scientists can attempt problems they otherwise wouldn't have enough processing power to solve.

I downloaded software from BOINC that allows my computer to fetch work units over the Internet, work on the problem, and then send the completed piece back to a central server. The download was straightforward on my Mac. The software and process are considered very safe, and it uses very little additional power. Since Thursday morning, my computer has completed two units of approximately 7 hours each for AIDS research projects through the World Community Grid and is currently working on a third. Lined up is a cancer research process. In addition, it's quietly working on a 2200-hour climate modelling project for which is projected to finish some time in 2010. (Clicking "Show Graphics" on the BOINC manager page brings up a small window with a rotating globe showing my climate model running. Mine's modelling from 1920 to 2080. Very cool!)

You can decide the maximum percentage of your computer's processing power to be allocated to these projects, and how much time and when they will run. They can run while the computer's in sleep (hibernate) mode, as well as when it's active. When you're working on your computer, your programs take precedence. However, if you're doing something intensive (e.g., photoprocessing), you can put the BOINC software in snooze mode or turn it off completely. And of course, you can opt out at any time. You can also join a team.  I joined the University of Arizona teams for both the World Community Grid and 

In addition to BOINC, there are other distributed grid companies where you can volunteer your unused computer time for very worthwhile projects.

BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), University of California (forecast climate in the 21st century)
World Community Grid
SETI@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)
Folding@home (to understand protein folding, misfolding and related diseases)

Silverstein, Jonathan: Cure Cancer with Your Computer (abc News)
Roach, John: Donate Your Unused Computer Power to Science (MSN tech & gadgets)
McKean, Kevin: Tap the Power of Your PC to Fight Cancer (PC World)


robin andrea said...

Wow, Pam, this is amazing information. Very inspiring and certainly something Roger and I would be very interesting in exploring further. Thank you for the links. Excellent!

Pam in Tucson said...

ra and roger - I'm having fun watching the different tasks that get assigned to my mac. I'm going to start another set up on an old PC laptop we have. I'm looking for nature-based one (I know there's one on whale shark research), but haven't found one yet that's easy to set up.