• Distributed Computing

    by Published on 08-21-11 08:28 PM  Number of Views: 4086 

    The computers we use today have powerful processors and lots of memory. The average user does not need all that power, yet when the machine is switched on it consumes power wheather you use it or not. The machine is actually idling when you are browsing, checking your email or reading what is going on in your favorite forum or web site. When you leave your machine to have a break, answer the phone or a nature call, it just sits there using electricity for nothing. If you don't believe me, do the three finger salute (Control, Alt, Del), click the processes tab and you'll see the majority of processing power is devoted to "System Idle Process". Distributed Computing Projects harness your underused computing power. All are Scientific Research projects, some medical, some trying to find cures for illnesses or new drugs, some looking for signs of Extra Terrestrial life. The combined power of the spare capacity available from millions of computers vastly exceeds the most powerful supercomputers.

    What is Volunteer Computing?

    Volunteer Computing is an arrangement in which people (volunteers) provide computing resources to projects, which use the resources to do distributed computing and/or storage.

    Volunteers are typically members of the general public who own Internet-connected PCs. Organizations such as schools and businesses may also volunteer the use of their computers.
    Projects are typically academic (university-based) and do scientific research. But there are exceptions; for example, GIMPS and distributed.net (two major projects) are not academic.
    Several aspects of the project/volunteer relationship are worth noting:

    Volunteers are effectively anonymous; although they may be required to register and supply email address or other information, they are not linked to a real-world identity.
    Because of their anonymity, volunteers are not accountable to projects. If a volunteer misbehaves in some way (for example, by intentionally returning incorrect computational results) the project cannot prosecute or discipline the volunteer.
    Volunteers must trust projects in several ways:
    The volunteer trusts the project to provide applications that don't damage their computer or invade their privacy.
    The volunteer trusts that the project is truthful about what work is being done by its applications, and how the resulting intellectual property will be used.
    The volunteer trusts the project to follow proper security practices, so that hackers cannot use the project as a vehicle for malicious activities.

    How does it work?

    Each project takes a big computing task and break it down to tiny segments called Work Units (WU's). These WU's are processed, (crunched) by your computer with the results returned for analysis and checking (validation). Most projects sends the same WU's to three or perhaps more computers and comparing the returned results for validity. There can be a time limit for the crunching the WU's and returning the results to ensure that there are not too many incomplete WU's are kicking about.

    Each Distributed Computing user has an account with the project's of their choice. The project will provide client software, often in the form of a screensaver. This client software handles the download, upload and crunching of the WU's.

    What's the Catch?

    You may be concerned that by allowing the software to be running on your computer, it won't be available to offer you full power on your computer when you need it. Distributed Computing (DC) Projects are designed to run in the background, at low priority mode. They only use spare capacity. When a program such as word-processing comes along, the computer automatically pause the DC process. It will restart only when computing again becomes idle. Should you distrust that process, you can always suspend the DC project for the duration and restart it manually when you are ready.

    You are volunteering your computer to the project. There will be no reward, other than knowledge of participation in a scientific endeavor and to see your score in league tables of your fellow project participants.

    Over years of use by thousands of participants there is no evidence to say your computer will be harmed. Inevitably you will wish to trust the project you are running that it's software is safe. But these days we all have firewalls and anti virus software? Your computer will be working hard while it is running the project, but then it's designed to offer full power all the time. Thus it's unlikely, that your computer will suffer physical damage. Perhaps the biggest issues are of temperature. As the computer is running intensely, the processor memory and other components might get quite warm. Keeping your computer well ventilated is important.

    The software for the project is freely available. The cost to you is your electricity, and time to install the project. If the computer would be on anyway for your normal use, you aren't adding to your power consumption. If however, as many participants chose to do, so as to boost their results, the computer is left on 24/7 even when you don't use the PC, you will burn power Dependant on your computer's power supply.

    What do I need?

    The faster your machine the greater will be your potential contribution. Most projects, simply because of the potential user base, run under Windows, but Linux and Mac computers are also well supported by some but not all projects. An Internet connection is also required - though this need not be broadband, but downloads and uploads can depending on the project be 10 or more MB per day - though often a machine can be "preload" (or cache) several (tens of) WU's in advance for off line crunching.

    The more recent projects are becoming more demanding of computer resources and can require a good Athlon XP/64 or higher equivalent, a dual or quad core computer. Usually they are heavily Dependant on the floating point performance. Plenty of memory and a small amount of hard disk space are useful too. Many projects are clever enough to only send you WU's that your computer can handle.

    You will need to setup a user account with each project. That may require you to have a valid email address. Once you have downloaded the client software and completed the registration process, the WU processing should commence automatically.

    In most cases you can only run one project's software on your computer at a time. Although projects all run at low priority, some are better at this than others. The exception is where you have dual or hyper threaded type processors where each processor can be assigned a different project. This can be a little geeky to get right. The BOINC based projects, allowing users to decide what percentage of computer time each gets, set via the project's web site.

    The projects and Teams

    It is perfectly acceptable just to donate your spare computing capacity to a project. There is no reward for your donation, other than your personal satisfaction of seeing your credit accumulate. Most find this rather dull and seek greater motivation. That's where teams come in.

    Teams provide a friendly competitive spirit amongst participants, a common cause to beat other teams. This encourages participants to crunch more. It can all be quite addictive - not to mention expensive. Active teams also provide a base where experiences and problems can be shared. Projects have recognized the ability of teams to enhance the crunching spirit. SETI.USA participate in the majority of projects that are available and have our own Forum to share experiences make friends and exchange ideas. I urge you to join us and give us a try.

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