Volunteer computing explained

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

02.Find a project

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.


Sign up to our free

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.