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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 clients.

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 Project.

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 specific time.

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.


The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, e-mail If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 23 February 2003


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