18 October 2007

warm fuzzies for geeks

I helped search for a cure for AIDS today. Read on...

I've got two computers, a desktop and laptop. My desktop is used primarily for heavy duty image editing. My laptop is there to help me communicate; email, IM, blogging, word processing, music, etc.Typically my attention is directed to one computer or the other, sometimes switching back and forth every 10 minutes. While I use one, the other sits idle. At night, I turn off the monitors, but leave the CPU's running, as I don't want to close out all the things I was in the middle of when I quit working the day prior. Also, my laptop plugs into my stereo and plays music to me while I sleep at night. At any rate, these faithful companions of mine do spend a lot of time... waiting.... waiting... waiting.... for me to give them something to do.

I found the coolest thing, and I have to tell you about it. When a computer is idle, or doing very little (like playing music), there is a lot of wasted CPU processing potential. There is a recent development called "distributed computing" that pools the resources of thousands of computers like yours mine - unused minutes and hours of CPU time - into a conglomeration of CPU time that amounts to massive supercomputing power.

Modern scientific research is dependent upon gargantuan amounts of computer power to crunch through massive amounts of data. In years past, researchers would have to apply for time on a very expensive super computer. In "distributed computing", your computer's unused minutes and hours are donated to a project of your choice. The cumulative effect of donated computer time amounts to supercomputer power available for researchers. It's very simple, you download a small program that politely runs in the background. When it detects your computer is idle (you have full control of these settings), it begins working on small chunks of the larger number crunching job that you've volunteered to work on - all of this coordinated via your internet connection.

For instance, when my laptop's screen saver kicks on, my computer works on a protein sequencing research being done by the University of Washington. The results of these computations are used in the fight against HIV, Alzheimer's, and cancer. While I write this blog on my laptop, my formerly-idle desktop PC is crunching numbers for researchers at Oxford University. They are studying global climate change, which requires massive amounts of computational power.

Would you like knowing your own computer is helping to help save the world and your fellow man? Join a research project today:
Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing

http://boinc.berkeley.edu

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