Volunteer computing explained

Thanks to volunteer computing you can donate to a good cause without lifting a finger.
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  • Updated:18 Mar 2009

01.Volunteer computing

Donation tin

There’s a growing swell in a new kind of charitable donation — the idle time of your processor (CPU). This kind of volunteer computing, also known as distributed computing, allows you to donate CPU time to good causes and in the process help to make a difference.

It’s easy to get involved — all you need is your computer and an internet connection. It’s become so popular there are plenty of causes vying for your charitable processor time, which gives you plenty of choice on where you’d like to make difference if you decide to participate.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

In brief

  • Volunteer computing allows you to donate 'processor time' from your computer, which takes place when the computer is idle.
  • Blocks of work are sent and received over the internet.
  • There are lots of projects to donate computer time to – we've given some examples.

Volunteer computing is a type of distributed computing that splits up and distributes a project into many small parts for processing on a multitude of computers. The aim is to solve large, often complex, problems that otherwise couldn’t be solved using traditional computing resources — supercomputers are expensive and many organisations can’t afford to purchase time on them.

But who needs a supercomputer when the world is full of millions of PCs, most of which spend a lot of their time idle? Volunteer computing allows you to donate the resources of the computers you own to such projects, without getting in the way of the normal usage of your machine. Thanks to the internet, any machine connected to the internet can participate — receiving ‘work units’ from a central server, processing them, and uploading the results back to the server.

The causes that can make use of distributed computing are many and varied. They cover topics such as looking for extra-terrestrial radio signals, predicting climate change in the 21st century, looking for cures for diseases and trying to find more effective drugs to fight the AIDS virus. So, if all it takes to join in is to run a program in the background on your machine, it’s an easy way to donate to a good cause and feel good in the process too.

How to participate

The projects you can choose depend on the organisations that need complex problems solved. Usually, the programs are built and released by universities and research institutions. Most projects have their own website (see table for examples) that provide information about the scope of the project, what they hope to solve and what they have achieved so far using volunteer computers.

It’s as simple as downloading the application from the project website and setting it up on your computer. You will need to register so that the central computer can recognise your computer and add your results to the main project database. Once a program is downloaded and running, it processes in the idle time when the computer is not being used — so you don’t even notice it’s there. Some programs provide feedback when the application is active.

Platforms used

There are several different platforms that can be used for distributed computing. One of the most popular is the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). BOINC is a cross-platform application that can be run on Windows, Linux, UNIX and Mac OS X computers. Individual project websites will usually include the minimum computer specifications — type of processor and graphics card — that is needed to run a BOINC project. For example, a computer with a dual core processor with 1GB RAM and 256MB graphics card would be more than sufficient.

Much of the technology behind these projects is shared with respect to the distributed computing clients. You can use one client and participate in a range of charitable causes. This makes it easy to donate to one or more causes, or change the causes you’re helping later on.

The client is largely a ‘set and forget’ application — install it, set up an account and then let it run. In your account, you can view detailed statistics on your participation — total units of work processed, the number of units being completed per hour and how your contribution compares to others. The statistical feature means you can band together with others working on the same project to form ‘teams’ (by work, hobby group, country and more) which then compete for the top spot in the rankings — friendly competition that serves to drive bigger contributions to the project!



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