Wanted: Your computer's spare time
What are you doing this weekend? How about an afternoon browsing for alien life, then a quick hunt for gravitational waves, followed perhaps by a spot of climate predicting?
It may sound exhausting but a computer and a few mouse clicks are all that’s required to join the volunteer computing movement and get to work cracking scientific mysteries.
‘The basic idea is that all your unused computing time, you can donate to science,’ explains Ad Emmen, a computer scientist at AlmereGRID. The easiest way of doing this is to install a program called BOINC, which runs in the background on your computer. ‘Then, if you are not doing anything, it asks the central server for work, executes it and sends the results back,’ says Emmen.
Making a supercomputer
Across the world, millions of other people do the same, combining their idle computer power into a supercomputer of epic proportions. This network of cooperating computers is known as a grid.
Scientists aren't just being lazy and getting us to do their work. Some projects simply wouldn’t be feasible without the cheap computing power provided by the likes of you and me.
One of the first ever volunteer computing projects was the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI@home. ‘It’s very difficult to get funding from funding agencies to do this type of research,’ comments Emmen.
Yet, thanks to the public’s help, the project has been running successfully for a decade, with half a million people pitching in every day. As a result, in a 24 hour period, SETI@home’s army of volunteers crunch as much data as would one lone computer running for 1700 years.
Even research that already receives funding can sometimes do with a boost. Climatologists trying to predict how our planet’s climate will change need to run their models thousands and thousands of times. ‘There are scientists that really need that extra capacity but can’t ask funding agencies for a million computers!’ says Emmen.
Volunteer computing is also a good way for scientists to get the public interested in their work, and allows you to show your support for worthy causes. ‘You can choose for yourself which kind of science you contribute to’, says Emmen. This could be anything from developing new drugs for HIV/AIDS to helping to build a quantum computer.
Grids aren’t only for the public: many scientific institutions already pool together their resources and lend each other computing power. The LHC for example will rely on thousands of computers scattered across the globe to analyse the mountains of data it will be churning out.
Currently scientific grids and volunteer grids exist separately, but Emmen is working on a project that will allow them to join forces. ‘What we are doing with the EDGeS project is building a bridge between the two. So if a scientist is on a scientific grid, he can also send jobs that will be executed on a volunteer grid’.
Although both types of grid work in a similar way, they need to be managed differently. In a scientific grid, all the computers’ specifications are known and their owners can be sent instructions, making their results very reliable. ‘In a volunteer computing grid you don’t know who the users are, you have no way to control them,’ explains Emmen.
‘Volunteer machines can send wrong results – either deliberately or because something goes wrong. The way we handle that is that work is sent out two or three times. Then when the answers come back they are compared and if they are the same then it is assumed that it is the correct answer.’
For volunteer computing to gain momentum and tackle even bigger scientific questions, more volunteers are needed to join its ranks. So what are you waiting for?
David Anderson, Director of SETI@home, explains how BOINC works
24 September 2009
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