Volunteer Computer Grids: Beyond SETI@home

How often is your PC running, but doing nothing? There are dozens of distributed public computing projects that can take that inaction and turn it into cures for cancer, predictions of climate change, particle accelerator calibrations, and more. Find out

If youve walked past the idle computers of techies during the past few years, youve undoubtedly seen the colorful bars of the SETI@home screensaver. These geeks are doing their part in the quest for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Taking advantage of PCs idle time, grid projects like SETI@home are able to do computations that would take many years in less than a day. In fact, SETI@home has already done over 2 million computer-years worth of computation.

But now there are dozens of other massively multiprocessor projects—known alternatively as distributed computing (DC), grid computing, or volunteer computing—that can take advantage of your otherwise unused CPU cycles in an effort to do things like predict global climate change, calibrate particle accelerators, or develop drugs to combat cancer and AIDS.

We decided to look into whether these projects have actually accomplished anything or were just spinning CPU cycles unnecessarily and making their users feel virtuous. After considering the platforms, projects, and how distributed computing works, well focus in on three project areas for a closer look to see what kind of results theyve produced.

The first distributed computing project on the internet was GIMPS—the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, which started in 1996. GIMPS sought to discover new large prime numbers and has successfully found 10 to date, including the largest on record, 230,402,457-1. Large prime numbers are useful for data encryption.

GIMPS was followed by distributed.net, which, starting in 1997, solved cryptographic challenges sponsored by RSA Labs and CS Communication & Systemes. The grand slam of volunteer computing projects, SETI@home, followed in 1999.

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