3. Using your PC to solve
mysteries of the universe
By Mark Alberstat
IMAGINE BUILDING a house with just one hammer and one carpenter. The job
would get done but it would take a long time. Many hammers and carpenters,
however, will do the job faster.
This theory lies behind a concept called distributed computing, an area of
home computing that has grown dramatically in the past few years.
Distributed computing is any computing problem or project that involves
multiple remote computers where each one has a role in the computational
problem. The problem is broken down into small tasks and sent to the
various computers to chug away at.
The small program, called a client, is downloaded to your computer. This
client controls the processing, which is done during your computer's idle
time, often as a screensaver program. When the small task is done, the
results are sent back to the project's home base and another chunk is set
out to start the analysis again.
One of the first, and certainly best-known, projects of this kind is SETI,
the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This California group
searches the heavens for signs of ET in the form of radio signals. Each
day, members record gigabytes of information to be analysed. The data are
broken down into units of about 300k that are then sent out to seti@home
The client software keeps track of how many units you have processed and
the amount of CPU time it has used, and it can even tell you what area of
the sky your current unit is from and when it was recorded. Small add-on
programs will display a sky chart of that area if you want to take a look
at where your ET may be signalling from.
Although seti@home is the most widely known example of distributed
computing, it is far from the only one that people like you and me can
participate in. A recent program that generated a lot of interest was Neo
Project's attempt to crack Microsoft's Xbox security. Before they shut
down the project to create a more salable client, Neo Project had over
15,000 users working on the encryption key.
There are distributed computing projects for several fields of research
ranging from helping design new drugs to fight AIDS with the aids@home
project to helping the human genome project or even creating a better
chess-playing artificial neural network with the Distributed Chess
In the U.K., distributed computing, or grid computing as it is called
there, is helping to find a cure for smallpox. Researchers at Oxford and
Essex universities are working with IBM on a distributed project that they
hope will involve two million PCs. It is estimated that this grid would
generate 15 million queries a day to their database. Oxford also has
distributed computing projects on cancer and anthrax research.
Distributed computing is being taken one step further with the PhotonStar
Project. PC users with a Global Positioning System receiver and a
telescope would be able to attach a laser detector to their telescope and
use their PC to join their telescope with thousands of others (if the
project catches on) to create a giant telescope. This mega-telescope
would then be used to detect laser pulses from a specific star system at a
If altruism and computing don't go hand in hand for you, there are even a
few projects that will pay you for your computer's processing time.
Payment in these projects is incredibly low and no one is going to retire
early off the proceeds, but they may just help you pay for that new
cordless mouse you've had your eye on.
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Originally published 23 February 2003