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Cancer researchers unbowed by distributed computing block

A new tool enabling IT managers to block distributed computing applications won't scupper Oxford University's humanitarian projects
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

A tool being offered to IT managers that blocks distributed computing applications should not affect humanitarian and health research projects, according to Oxford University research scientists.

Antivirus vendor Sophos last week announced updated application control software that enables IT managers to block distributed applications such as the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute's SETI@home project, and the Screensaver Lifesaver project at Oxford, which uses distributed computing applications to model potential cancer-fighting molecules. The project currently has approximately 3.5 million users.

Distributed computing systems use idle processor time to crunch raw data. The projects allow organisations to tap vast amounts of unused computing power for very little cost.

Sophos's new tool for businesses will not affect research projects because most people who donate computer time are home users, according to Dr Karl N. Harrison, IT Coordinator at Oxford University's Centre for Computational Drug Discovery, which runs the Screensaver Lifesaver project.

"I don't think it will affect distributed computing projects at all. In our case, most of the people involved are home users, and the businesses in the project have made a positive decision [to contribute spare processor time]," said Harrison. "Other businesses would probably block distributed activity anyway."

Harrison said he didn't think there would be a large uptake for software to block distributed computing applications, as most businesses have traffic monitoring facilities or firewalls configured to block unauthorised traffic already.

However, Sophos insisted that IT managers did feel the need to control access to distributed applications.

"This is not only because it may be wasting bandwidth and CPU time, but because they want greater control over the data that is leaving their organisation and what programs their users are installing and running," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos.

Dave Marsh, a member of the information security and compliance team at Heinz told ZDNet Australia that he welcomed the move.

"Controlling what my users can run helps to prevent so many risks, including data leakage and bandwidth hogging, and helps enforce compliance to company security standards," said Marsh.

Harrison said that bandwidth costs would be more than offset by positive PR for companies donating processing power to humanitarian projects.

"Clearly, IT managers should be able to control what users are doing on their networks," said Harrison. "However, IT managers should find out more about distributed computing projects, as they give good PR for companies. Yes, you're contributing bandwidth, but you get good PR for that, so ultimately you're saving money. PR can be much more expensive."

Most distributed computing projects use encrypted traffic to safeguard the quality of the data, mitigating some security issues, according to Harrison.

ZDNet Australia's Munir Kotadia contributed to this article.

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