Distributed computing for the greater good

Distributed computing for the greater good

Summary: From searching for alien life to working out cancer's protein structures to seeking cores for orphan and rare diseases, distributed computing programs can put your idle computers to good work.


What do you think your computer does most of the time? For most of us, most of the time, it just sits there idly spinning its wheels.

It doesn't have to be that way. There are many distributed computer programs, such as Seti@home, the search for alien life; Folding@home, protein research for understanding how many diseases work; and the just announced Quantum Cures project which seeks to find cures for "orphan" diseases. Most can put your PC to useful work while you're drinking coffee or asleep in your bed.

Your computer, humming away at night, could be searching for extraterrestrial life or helping to cure cancer.

These programs use the power of up to hundreds of thousands of computers around the world to create distributed supercomputers. While no single distributed project is as fast as a Top500 supercomputer, they're still faster than the computers to which most researchers have access.

Distributed computing is as old as the hills. This technique started being used across the Internet for public distributed computing projects only in 1997 with distributed.net. This project, which continues to this day, is devoted largely to cracking high-end encryption protocols.

The most popular early distributed computing project, and certainly the most influential, is Seti@home. The purpose of this project, which has been running since 1999, is to see if there are signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe from radio astronomy's raw data.

While we still haven't heard from any ETs, Seti@home developers created the most popular, public-distributing computing software: Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). This open-source middleware program handles the distribution, processing, and retrieval of work-units. Each work-unit is a small part of a larger task.

When you're running a BOINC, or any other public distributing computing project, the program works on its projects in the background. BOINC clients are available for Linux, Mac OS X, Windows and almost all other operating systems.

At this time, there are just over 2.5-million BONIC users. Of these, 10% are active at any given moment. The total average floating point operations per second of all BONIC projects in late February 2013 was 8,723 TeraFLOPS. How fast is that? Summed up, that would make the global BONIC cluster the world's 4th fastest supercomputer. Now, that's fast. Of course, its throughput is far slower than any "real" supercomputer, but it gives you an idea of just how powerful distributed computing really is.

Today, there are about 50 BONIC projects. These include: Malaria Control, which tries to work out the best prevention methods for controlling this tropical disease; SIXTRACK, which runs particle acceleration simulations for CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC); and the Quake-Catcher Network, which is designed to use PCs, with the appropriate sensors, to monitor earthquakes around the world.

The newest of these projects, Quantum Cures, which is being done in conjunction with EURORDIS, a non-governmental patient-driven alliance of patient organizations representing 561 rare disease patient groups in 51 countries worldwide. Its purpose is to speed the discovery of small molecules for use in new medicines and vaccines the so-called “orphan and rare diseases.” These are ailments that traditionally do not receive the attention or research and development efforts of the world’s major pharmaceutical companies because their are not enough cases to make it profitable to fight them. These diseases include isolated spina bifida, cleft palates, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and sleeping sickness.

“There is substantial interest in and reason to pursue development of treatment and cures for a wide range of diseases which have, up until now, not received the attention they deserve,” said Lawrence Husick, Quantum Cures' co-founder in a statement. “By enlisting the help and computer time from many people, we can begin to deliver the resources needed to find the answers, and improve the quality of life of millions, both today and in the future.”

TeraDiscoveries, the company that developed Inverse Design -- the computational technique used in the Quantum Cures effort -- is contributing its software, developed in partnership with Duke University and Microsoft, at cost.

The client needed to take part in Quantum Cures will be available by the end of June on a limited basis at the project's main site. You can sign up now to get on the “launch priority list” and be given preference in downloading the software. The project also claims that "people donating their computer time to be used for the research may be able to take a tax deduction for the time their machines are used."

Tax benefits or not, this, and  most of the many other distributed computing projects, are doing good work using your idle computers. If you'd like to help with one or more of these projects, Wikipedia maintains a useful list of public distributed computing projects.

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Topics: Networking, Collaboration, Open Source, Software

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  • Sounds like socialism...

    Besides, "distributed computing" also explained what happened in the 1980s and 1990s as companies found centralized computing, time-sharing of servers, and other limitations to be too constricting for profits. Distributed computing, and the freedoms it brought, became the norm.

    Now articles talk of "back to the future"...

    And I will bet real money that this distributed form of CPU-sharing will be hacked to cause even greater trouble...

    And once tablets, whose power is 1/10th that of desktops (depending on how accurate geekbench is), become the norm for most users, say "bye" to the desktops sharing their power, leaving to a nice big plunge...
    • BOINC on Android

      Distributed computing is not limited to what we think of traditional computers. Any electronic device with a standard architecture processor can work with enough memory and storage available.

      BOINC already is testing for phones and tablets and is actively porting to Android and other devices that would support processing tasks. Even with less computing power per device combined they have incredible computing power. Being designed to compute while plugged in there is still many computing cycles that can be harnessed. Think of it as computing everywhere in everything.
      • It would be foolish for any tablet or smartphone user

        to allow a distributed network to use available cycles. One of the bragging points for tablet and smartphone makers is the battery life that those devices get. Why would someone allow his battery to get drained by some "outsider" or some outside service?
        • Not just battery life,

          how fast would you go through a data plan? If you
          have a small data plan, you could find yourself with a
          surprise bill at your next billing cycle!
        • Call it a donation

          But perhaps those sorts of things should be disabled unless your device is plugged in and you're using your home LAN.
          John L. Ries
        • do try to keep up

          ...because the mobile version only works when the phone is plugged in and charging - and is wi-fi only, too.

          Doesn't affect battery life, doesn't use cellular data.

          It's almost as if they thought about it. Unlike some people around here...
          Mark McAndrew
    • Perhaps

      But it seems more like the utopian cooperative socialism of the 18th and 19th centuries than it does like the modern statist variety, and there's not even a trace of Marxist class struggle.

      And yes, if you're going to give strangers access to your computer, then you should take appropriate security precautions, unless you *really* trust them.
      John L. Ries
  • Well, socialism can be good or bad, but

    I paid LOTS of money for my PCs... the least people can do is value my and my equipment and the time I am letting them use.

    After all, if the positions were reversed... and that's something a lot of people have forgotten about, in our "new normal".

    A core issue is consideration... amongst others. Like "value". Not "subtle, shrouded exploitation". We on the "demand-side" have ROI and other issues we have to deal with just as much, if not more so. But we don't have billions of dollars in our pockets, regardless of how it was earned (ethically or not), that in turn allow us the freedom to be "philanthropic" in return. And if we all were, we would not even get the credit, recognition, etc, for our time or involvement for being free with our computers becoming "supply-side". especially when I compile code, edit HD movies, render imagery, etc... not all users do... context is a fair point as well...
  • BUT ---- This is the post PC world

    Are you suggesting smartphones should be used? Buwahahahahahahaha
  • OK so they want to use my spare computing cycles

    Standard questions for anyone should be:
    1. what is their security like. Can someone hijack the access they have to my machine, etc., etc.

    2. What's the impact on my data pipe? Will I notice?

    3. Can my computer handle the extra work, does my CPU have anough cycles to really help?

    4, for phones, do I have a data plan that can handle it and am I willing to pay for it?

    It all sounds like a wonderful project, sort like a terestrial SETI project, but not knowing what their security is and whether their access could be hacked, lets just say I'm not willing to share just yet.
    • Crunching BOINC projects is safe for you and your computer.

      Cynical99 (and anyone else interested in BOINC distributed computing),

      Your concerns are typical for many folks that are hearing about BOINC distributed computing. I'll try to address some of them.

      First it's important to understand there are three main software components to BOINC. The BOINC client (runs in the background), the BOINC Project Manager software (that let's you view your tasks/projects) and the software that is provided by the specific project you join/volunteer for.

      1. Security is discussed at the BOINC wiki. http://boinc.berkeley.edu/wiki/BOINC_Security
      If you aren't satisfied with what you read there you could always join the forum and ask specific questions. The BOINC project manager is open source software and the developers can address any security concerns you may have.

      2. Data pipe: When you join a project you will download software they provide to perform calculations for that project. That initial download may vary in size depending on the project. After you have the project software downloaded you will receive tasks, and send them back when they are complete. In my experience this isn't a significant amount of data but the BOINC Project Manager has settings for bandwith requirements - so you can decide what the limits are.

      3. Can your computer handle the work?: I have run BOINC projects on a variety of systems under Windows and Linux with no system issues. The BOINC Project Manager allows you to adjust the amount of system resources used. I've run it on old machines (Dell P4) and newer GPU systems. I recommend watching your CPU temps for the first few days to make sure your system doesn't have any issues there. Some folks find they run a little warmer than they like, but again you can adjust system settings via the project manager. The one concern most folks have is electricity use and heat. My old Dell P4 was retired from BOINC crunching as it just wasn't an efficient machine IMHO. Some folks crank up the work in winter and throttle back in summer.

      There are currently 255,122 active BOINC crunchers/volunteers. Many of these folks are software developers or hardware performance junkies. There are organized teams as well and there are a number of forums where you can find detailed information on the safety, reliability and benefits of BOINC crunching. I'm the founder of the Atlantic Team. We have a group on LinkedIn, there is also a BOINC Users Group on LinkedIn where you could ask questions before you try the software if you like or you can just visit the BOINC message boards and read/join the discussions there.


      I would suggest you take a look at some of the projects that are supported by distributed computing. Perhaps a good place to start would be the website for the World Community Grid:


      My team supports over 25 projects that range from mathematics, medical research, and the grandfather of them all: SETI@Home.
      Mark Vang
    • Standard questions, standard answers

      1. Rock solid. 6m installs over last decade, not a single security breach.
      2. No, you won't. (And you can turn it down.)
      3. Easily. Typical PC uses less than 2% of its CPU cycles. And it ONLY uses the surplus anyway.
      4. Phone version is wi-fi only (yes, they thought of that too), and data throughput is tiny.

      Answers to all that was a single Google search away.
      Mark McAndrew
      • The prevoius reply was nice, concise, but yours

        reeks of the Linux arrogance that does nothing more than irritate people. Mark Vang was polite, you are arrogant. With attitude like that, I'll stay away.
  • Boinc and World Community Grid

    I've been using BOINC for 5 years now and have never had any problems. The last 3 years I've been involved in the World Community Grid (by IBM) that aims to solve problems regarding diseases.
    I particularly like the fact that their software (and those of others such as Primegrid) can actually use my CUDA based graphics card as well as my CPU. It feels good to know that you are contributing to something worthwhile.
  • To the naysayers who should do a little research first...

    BOINC has been around for over 10 years, used by over 6 million PCs. Never a single security problem in all that time.

    It's free, open-source software from Berkeley Uni. You don't have to trust it, you can pull the code apart and see for yourself (and many people have done).

    Also used by IBM, Intel and the BBC for their volunteer computing projects - after strict security auditing for legal reasons, which it passed with flying colours. It's literally safer than browsing the web.

    BOINC sits quietly in the background, only using spare CPU time that is doing nothing else. If you so much as touch the mouse, BOINC gets out of the way instantly. All your own work has priority.

    So yes - it works extremely well and has done for many years. You can even win money and raise funds for the world's best charities by running it (see www.charityengine.com).
    Mark McAndrew
  • Missed a few things

    I've been participating in BOINC projects for about 3 years.

    I now donate all my resources to Einstein@Home because it is related to my work in Astronomy and the search for Gravitational Waves. If you're looking for projects, please consider this one too.

    People mentioned the Android projects but there's also some interesting work with Raspberry PI machines.

    The BOINC concept is interesting and the implementation of many projects is quite impressive. If you have a computationally intensive project that at least part of which is "embarrassingly parallel" it is not that hard to set up your own project and ask for volunteers.

    As I said I've used it for years and have not seen any security issues. There are plenty of options available to make it almost invisible to normal operation.