Computing for the greater good

Donate your computer’s lazy nanoseconds to cure Parkinson’s disease, search for extraterrestrial life or find the largest prime number.

Did you know that your computer spends a lot of time waiting for you? Think about it, modern computers are capable of performing between 20 and 140 billion operations per second. Even when it is flat out you can imagine that a few of those operations are not used.

You can put those wasted operations to good use to help one of a number of projects of your choice. Even your gaming console may be put to good use while it is not entertaining you.

What is an operation?
In basic terms it is a measurement that relates to a single instruction that to us would look something like is A bigger than B? or Add C to D. Now take that single instruction and repeat it 20 billion times in the space of a second. Pretty impressive. Note that the figure of 20 billion operations or 20,000 MIPS (Millions of Instructions Per Second) applies to a computer that would have been top of the line over 5 years ago. Today’s top end computers are capable of up to around 140,000 MIPS.

So how does it work?
Lets say we have chosen a project to donate lazy operations (or cycles) to. We install a client which is a program that talks to the computers (servers) coordinating the project. The project is broken up into many billions of work packages and your computer is sent one of those packages. We can picture one of those packages as a handful of puzzle pieces that when completed fit into the bigger picture and your computer has been charged with the task of arranging those pieces into something that fits the bigger picture. When your computer has crunched enough numbers to complete its work package it sends the completed package back to the servers and is issued another package.

Does it slow my computer down?
Not usually. The client software only kicks in when your computer is idle and when you start using it again, the package saves its work and goes to sleep and waits for the computer to fall idle again. The people getting the benefit from this initiative want to make sure it does not get in the way of the people donating the computer cycles to the project. Happy donors = more donors.

So what projects can I help?
There are a few big and long running projects that need your help…

Folding@Home is dedicated to simulating and finding out how proteins fold. This is important in the research into disorders like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease where the symptoms are caused by proteins folding in a way that causes the disorder. If researchers can work out why and how these problem folds happen they can find a way to stop the diseases at a very low level potentially curing the conditions.

Seti@Home is for people that want to believe that we are not alone. This project needs loads of computing power to comb through the seemingly endless stream of noise detected by radio telescopes pointed into space. This project is looking for repeated patterns in radio transmissions that could give clues to other intelligent life.

GIMPS stands for Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search and is a big deal for maths and cryptoanalysis geeks. Currently the largest prime number is known as the 47th Known Mersenne prime and is too large for me to type out but imagine a number that contains 12,837,064 digits AND is a prime number that took a computer 29 days of crunching it’s individual work package to find. This shows that work packages are a kind of lottery where your computer could be the one that gives the world that eureka moment.

These are just 3 of the dozens of projects that you can donate your spare computer time to. For a full list of active and inactive projects have a look at this Wikipedia page.

I encourage you to get involved. It is safe and you are only giving away something you are not using anyway. You never know, you might even get a little recognition for your computer making that vital piece of the puzzle fit that could lead to a cure for cancer or make first contact with ET.