Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Donate Your Unused Computer Power to Science

Want to help fight global warming, search for extraterrestrials and maybe even cure cancer? You don’t need a PhD, just a PC.

Chances are you're reading this article on a computer. And unless you're constantly designing spaceships and listening to one of a million songs squirreled away on your hard drive, you've got some data-crunching and storage capacity to spare. Why not donate it to scientific research by participating in a volunteer computing project?

Huh? What is volunteer computing?
Think of volunteer computing as a donation to science, but instead of money or a body part, you’re sharing your computer's unused power to help find life on other planets, cure cancer or predict the effects of global warming. These large scientific problems are split up into small pieces that are worked on by individual computers around the world.

The technology is a type of distributed computing, which uses multiple machines across a network to do a particular computation, but because these science projects rely on anonymous donors, "volunteer" gives it distinction, says David Anderson, founder of BOINC—the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing—a group at the University of California that develops widely used volunteer computing software.

Why do scientists need my computer?
There are half a billion personal computers in the world with processors that do nothing most of the time, explains Anderson, who also directs the popular SETI@home project, which uses volunteers to help analyze radio waves from space for signs of extraterrestrials.

The combined strength of a tiny fraction of this unused computing power is greater than that of the world's largest supercomputer, allowing scientists to attempt problems they'd otherwise never crack.

For example, chemistry professor Vijay Pande at Stanford University has access to 300,000 computer processors for his Folding@home project, which studies how proteins assemble themselves, for insight into such diseases as Alzheimer's, mad cow, Parkinson's and cancer. The typical supercomputer has about 5,000 processors, he says.

What’s in it for me?
A virtual pat on the back or a warm fuzzy for helping scientists do good research motivates most people to participate in volunteer computing projects.

"They don't get any money," Anderson says.

Rather, people join because they want to support one of the projects. Some people are fascinated by the possibility of finding ET or deem global warming the most important issue of our time. Many want to help cure terminal illnesses.

"Others enjoy the competitive nature of it, as one competes to see who can calculate the most," Pande commented in an e-mail.

How does it work?
Participants download to their computers special software that fetches work units over the Internet. The volunteer computers do their individual task and, once complete, send the piece back to a central server. If they want, they can pick up another unit.

"One of the jobs this piece of software has is to make that happen invisibly to the user," Anderson says.

People who use their computers primarily to surf the Web, check e-mail or do word processing will never notice the program running. However, the software also can be configured to run only when the computer is idle—at night, for example, or when a screen saver kicks in.

In addition, most programs provide users with the option to monitor their projects. For example, participants in the University of Oxford's experiment can watch the climate change on a 3-D planet Earth as the program models the potential effects of global warming.

Is it safe?
Computer security is of primary concern to volunteer computing projects. If hackers find a way to download viruses onto participating computers, volunteers may quit. Likewise, a volunteer could return a corrupt file that sabotages the science.

BOINC addresses this problem with an encryption technology called code signing. A dedicated computer not connected to the Internet signs each work packet before it goes out. The signature has to match up with the project's key for the software on the volunteer computer to accept it.

"If projects obey that rule, then the only programs that will be accepted by people's computers running BOINC are those that are actually produced by the project," Anderson says.

Notable volunteer computing projects independent of the BOINC system employ similar security procedures. For example, Stanford’s Folding@home uses digital signatures and interacts only with project software downloaded from its servers.

"The crucial aspect of volunteer computing as it's done at the moment is that the participants have to trust the scientists distributing experiments," says Myles Allen, the principal investigator for

I'm still wary. Why should I trust BOINC or any other system?
"It's ultimately the responsibility of the computer owner to evaluate the projects," Anderson says.

He advises that potential volunteers evaluate the institution behind the project, academic papers published by the project team and whether the project has a history of solid security. The answers should provide a good gauge of the project's legitimacy.

The BOINC Web site maintains a list of trusted projects using the BOINC system. The list includes SETI@home,, Rosetta@home and a dozen others.

What about privacy?
Projects that use BOINC require users to create an account with an e-mail address, but the address is never verified, Anderson says.

"The project doesn't know anything about you," he says. "You can use whatever name you want, so the project doesn't know who you are, and people are not going to see your name or IP address or anything like that on the project's Web site." A real e-mail address, however, allows the project team to send participants periodic newsletters and the like.

Also, most projects have active Web sites with social networking tools such as message boards. Users often find that these features connect them with like-minded people. The SETI@home message board has even spawned a few marriages.