Years ago, I wrote an article about donating your CPU time to science – taking advantage of an Internet computing model known as distributed computing. In that article, I discussed some of the cool projects you could devote your computer’s CPU time to, including things like defending against bio-terrorism, fighting cancer, and supporting nanotechnology.
In fact, I ran a few of those projects for quite a while after writing that article, and I was so interested in the whole distributed computing model that I interviewed IBM at one point in my writing career about their own project, the World Community Grid. I’m going to explain more about the World Community Grid below, but before we get to individual distributed computing projects, it’s important to catch up with how the entire community has evolved in those few years since I last wrote about it.
What’s amazing is how the evolution of distributed computing has followed along in the collaborative spirit of the scientific community itself. In the past, many of these projects required that users download individual programs, and they each had their own independent screen savers and other features apart from what other projects were doing. These days, the majority of the projects pug into a central control manager called BOINC, run by the folks at Berkeley. With that one application, you can divvy up your spare CPU power to support a whole multitude of computing causes that you believe in.
Amazing Distributed Computing Projects
I love the concept of BOINC, which you can download and install directly from Berkeley’s BOINC page. I love it because when I downloaded and ran the projects in the past, the process wasn’t really simple or easy. I loved the screensavers and the cool graphics, but really, distributed computing comes down to offering up your CPU to the causes you believe in – that’s the bottom line.
With the BOINC Manager, you install it and launch it, and there are all of the distributed computing projects, right at your fingertips.
I would absolutely not recommend any such program unless it contained the large majority of available projects. Thankfully BOINC does. I also found that there are many projects not listed in the project listing inside of the BOINC program itself, but you can still paste the URL for any BOINC-supported project you find on the web, and the manager will recognize and load it. It’s very cool.
I mentioned Climateprediction.net a few years ago, mostly because it’s a project that I think a large majority of people believe in. The project’s goal is to work on predicting the Earth’s climate all the way into the year 2100. The goal isn’t only to create predictive models, but to test the accuracy of existing climate models to determine which are more likely scenarios.
After signing up with Climateprediction.net through BOINC, you’ll get instantly forwarded to the website to complete your signup, and get access to all of your current statistics.
At that website you can also find a lot of the climate models and information at links like WeatherAtHome and in other areas of the site. Make sure to explore the site if and when you sign up with this project.
The Cosmology project is one of my favorites, because I love the idea of being able to help with developing models of the universe. The Cosmology project incorporates astronomical and particle physics data into its models. As someone that was giving a standing ovation to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, I am thrilled to offer some of my CPU power to this sort of cause.
The image above shows what BOINC looks like running tasks for Cosmology. You can press the down arrow under “Add Project” to see all of the projects you’ve signed up for and instantly link to each website. The main panel above this dropdown list shows the completion of the current task your CPU is working on, and how long it’s been working on that computational task.
I’m probably exposing my bias toward projects that are focused on space by listing Orbit@Home as well, but the bottom line is that it’s another very cool distributed computing project.
The Orbit@Home project is focused on studying the solar system to use computations to deal with important problems for the Earth such as Near Earth Asteroids (NEA). I love the idea of such a project potentially being the source of an early alert that there is a NEA on a dangerous course for Earth, providing humanity with time to plan and prepare to meet that challenge.
What I really like about the Orbit@home website are the statistics and information provided at the site so that you can see an overview of all computations that have taken place for the project.
The project also has a community, and whenever there’s any major news, you’ll find it on the main page of the site, such as the announcement of Asteroid 2011 MD near-pass on July 27 of 2011. The page isn’t updated often, but when there’s something to report, you’ll find it there.
The MindModeling@Home project is one of those projects that’s not listed within the BOINC program list, but if you type the project URL into the Project URL field, it’ll recognize the project as BOINC compatible and will sign you up and connect to the project.
The MindModeling project is one that is focused on running what the site describes as “computational cognitive process modeling” to understand the human mind. In my opinion, the task of modeling and simulating the human mind is one of the greatest, most challenging, and probably a nearly impossible task.
The idea of modeling “human performance and learning” is such an amazing concept to me, that I am more than happy to devote come of my computing power to that lofty goal. And of course, the project has a pretty cool website too.
The website shows a leaderboard of sorts, that shows the most “giving” project participants, and you’ll find information and news about the project throughout the site.
The World Community Grid.
Years ago, I spoke with the folks at IBM about their new (at the time) charity project known as the World Community Grid. The company made no profit from the project, and it devoted it’s own resources and even dedicated personnel to make sure that the distributed computing project was successful.
The World Community Grid is included in BOINC, but what makes it special is that it isn’t just one project, but it instead takes your CPU computing power and distributes it across the World Community Grid computational causes. Some of these causes include things like fighting malaria, clean water, muscular dystrophy, and fighting childhood cancer.
You could actually sign up with just the World Community Grid, and your CPU would get put to excellent use for some extremely important causes. And you can monitor and learn more about those ongoing causes right at the World Community Grid website.
More About BOINC
As you can see in this article, I really think using BOINC is the way to go to support as many projects as you like, while only having to download and run a single application. It’s the way to go.
Some of the tweaking you can do with BOINC is configuring how much of your CPU it consumes and when it consumes it. You can actually define set times of the day when it can perform work, how much disk space it can use, and you can configure it to only do work when you’re not using your computer and it’s gone idle for a few minutes.
The advanced view of the application also shows you more statistics about all of your current projects. It’ll show you all of the project tasks that your computer is currently working on and the overall progress of those tasks.
And finally, BOINC also includes screensavers from each of the projects that you’ve decided to support, such as this one from Cosmology@Home that fades in and out between images, and the current status of your running jobs.
Supporting so many important causes by just having your computer running is actually a pretty cool feeling. It’s like giving your computer a chance to do some good in the world, and all you’re really donating if you think about it, is nothing more than maybe slightly higher electric consumption and slightly more load on your processor.
Given that you may be helping to solve some of the worlds most pressing problems, I’d say that’s not a whole lot to give up.
Have you ever supported any distributed computing projects? Did you spot any hear that sound cool? Share your own feedback and your favorite projects in the comments section below.
Image Credits: Laptops Sharing Via Shutterstock
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