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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All for a good cause

The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), which looks for Mersenne prime numbers, started in 1996 and was the first volunteer computing project. The other early projects included distributed.net, a security and encryption project, SETI@home, which belongs to the University of California Berkeley to study the search for extraterrestrial life, and Folding@home, a project that looks at the connection between certain diseases and protein folding in the body.

Today there are over 50 active distributed computing projects running at any given time. The projects cover a variety of subjects such as biology, physics and astronomy, mathematics, games, cryptography and earth sciences. If you’re interested in participating, we’ve provided a summary of a few different projects here. In addition, the table has more examples of distributed computing projects you can join.



The Folding@Home project belongs to the Stanford University Medical Center and studies protein folding and related diseases. The project simulates timescales thousands of millions of times longer than previously achieved to reproduce protein folding (and mis-folding) as it happens in the body. Proteins assemble, or fold, before they can carry out many functions in the body. However, when proteins do not fold correctly, it has serious implications for the body and the development of many diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (also called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

The Folding@Home project has a number of commercial partners that include Sony and Nvidia, and the site has a wealth of information about the importance of understanding the role of proteins in diseases. The project publishes a detailed list of the results that have been achieved so far. For example, a sub-project was able to predict important mutations on the influenza hemagglutinin protein that affect viral function.



This project was founded in 1997 and the main aim is to work out the Optimal Golomb Ruler (OGR). A Golomb ruler is a set of non-negative integers having no two pairs that differ by equal amounts. (It makes it easier to picture the integers as marks on a conceptual ruler — hence the name.) A Golomb ruler with n marks is optimal if it’s the shortest ruler with that many marks. As n increases, it becomes exponentially more difficult to work out the optimal OGR. The distributed.net project needs the computing power of volunteers to help find OGRs with 24 and more marks. Solving the OGR has a range of applications including sensor placements for x-ray crystallography and radio astronomy. Golomb rulers can also play a significant role in coding theory and communications.

The distributed.net project has also worked on unlocking a number of keys that are used for internet encryption. For example, participants have unlocked a series of messages that have been encrypted as part of the RSA Laboratories Secret Key Challenge. Each processing unit can typically be finished in around 30 minutes.



The LHC@Home project aims to develop particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), that it is hoped will enable opposing beams of protons to collide and reveal more about the origins of the universe. The project belongs to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which is devoted to the study of particle physics, and also where the web was born with CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1990.

The LHC@Home project has two different programs that are available — SixTrack and Garfield — that help accelerator physicists simulate the proton beam stability of the LHC. SixTrack was the first home project and it simulates 60 particles at a time as they travel around the ring, and runs the simulation for 100,000 loops (or sometimes 1 million loops). The hope is that repeating the calculations thousands of times will reveal the conditions under which the beam should be stable. Garfield is used to understand the behaviour of gas-based detectors with the hope of reducing the number of calibration runs that need to be done once the detector is up and running.



The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a scientific study to detect intelligent life outside earth. The SETI@Home project is based at the University of California Berkeley and uses many individual computers to download and analyse radio telescope data.

SETI@Home was launched in 1999 to analyse the radio signals primarily from celestial sources and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. The project analyses the signals for narrow bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so the belief is that detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial presence.

More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. While the SETI@Home project hasn’t yet shown that ET exists, a new project called Astropulse will search for short-band bursts or ‘pulses’ coming from the stars. It may also detect rapidly rotating pulsars, exploding primordial black holes or as-yet unknown astrophysical phenomena.

World Community Grid


The World Community Grid project aims to amass the largest public computing grid working on projects that will benefit humanity. Their mission is ambitious — they aim to create large-scale computer volunteerism supported by technological innovation and scientific research to change the world for the better. There is a diverse range of projects that fall under the banner of the World Community Grid — The Clean Energy Project, Nutritious Rice for the World, Help Conquer Cancer, Discovering Dengue Drugs, Human Proteome Folding and FightAIDS@Home Project.

The World Community Grid project has almost 400 partners, including corporations, universities and industry groups. It has completed several projects — Fiocruz genome comparison that helps to improve the quality and interpretation of biological data; tissue microarrays analysis to improve the treatment of cancer with better diagnostic tools; and the Human Proteome Folding Project that helped identify proteins that make up the human proteome and, in turn, improve treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and malaria.

03.Sample volunteer projects and costs

 Name  Project
Aims to develop a publicly distrbuted system for rendering 3D animations.
Aims to develop a publicly distrbuted system for rendering 3D animations.
The largest experiment to try and produce a forecast of the climate in the 21st century. 
Evaluate drugs that can treat childhood Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. 
Searches for the model that best describes our universe. 
Aims to identify drugs that may have the right shape and chemical characteristics to block HIV. 
Help physicists develop and exploit particle accelerators such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. 
A project to build cognitive models of the human mind. 
Project Sudoku
Searches for the smallest possible start configuration of sudoku. 

The cost of volunteer computing

Donating your computer’s processing idle time may not cost you any effort beyond installing a client on your computer – but it does still take electricity to have your computer running.

To get an idea how much it would cost you to run your computer for a good cause we ran some sample projects while measuring power usage and estimated the cost over a year. We used a PC with an Intel Core Duo 2.13GHZ with 1GB RAM, 320GB hard drive running Windows XP Home with SP2, and testing using both SETI@Home and Folding@Home (separately) to measure the power consumption.

Some volunteer computing clients can also run on the Sony PS3 games console, and Folding@Home in particular is a popular client for the platform. So we tested Folding@Home on a PS3 and found it was slightly cheaper to run. The figures above assume that the PC or games console is running the volunteer computing project 24/7 all year. And while some volunteers do donate their computer power full time, it will be less if you let the client run in the background while you’re using the machine during the day.

  • The PC processing for the SETI@Home project had an annual power consumption of 1486kWh, while Folding@Home consumed a similar figure of 1387kWh per year.
  • Assuming that electricity costs 17c per kWh it would cost $252 to run SETI@Home and $235 to run Folding@Home.
  • The annual active energy consumption on the PS3 was 1177kWh, which equates to a cost of $200 per year at 17c per KWh.
  • An average usage pattern of four hours a day would equate to around $33 to $42 per year.

However, in today’s era of climate change there’s one more consideration — the environmental cost. Using power from traditional coal-fired power stations will add to the greenhouse gases while your computer is on and running. If you’re already using an alternative energy source, there’s less to worry about, but generally the benefits of participating are sure to outweigh the drawbacks.

If you’re willing to donate some computing power and a little bit of money via your power bill, volunteer computing is an easy and very worthwhile way to help a good cause. To find out more head to distributedcomputing.info or volunteerathome.com.

Who knows, you may end up helping to find ET or a cure for cancer!