Help      |      Chebucto Home      |      News      |      Contact Us     

84. Save lives with your computer

By Andrew D. Wright

Most of us use our computers to read email, surf the web, and maybe do a bit of game playing. Our computers meanwhile are doing the machine version of twiddling their thumbs while they wait for the next task.

Windows XP users can right click on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen and select Task Manager to see the running processes. Something called system idle process will usually be taking up 90% or more of the CPU, the central processing unit.

System idle process is the computer measuring how much of its resources are not being used by any other program. This is frequently misunderstood; the number reported is not how much processing time the system idle process is using, it's how much of the time your CPU is doing nothing at all.

The more powerful modern home computers are becoming, the more processor cycles are being totally wasted.

You can put those precious processor cycles to good use with BOINC, from the University of California at Berkeley. The letters stand for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing and what they mean is researchers working on a variety of complex problems can use this one program to carry out computing work using home computers that they could never afford to do on their own.

BOINC is a program that will run in the background on your computer and it will use any processor time that no other program on your computer is using. When you want to do something, BOINC steps out of the way and you are no more aware it's there than you knew when the system idle process kicked in before.

It will download data from the Internet, process it then upload the results to the BOINC server and get a new piece to work on. These downloads are small and don't tie up the Internet connection.

At the time of this writing there are twelve research projects that use BOINC with more on the way. You can set BOINC to work on multiple research projects and set what percentage of the available CPU time should go to each project.

Four of the twelve available BOINC projects are medical research. Three of these involve calculating the properties of protein molecules and how they can fold into different shapes. Mad cow disease is an example of a folded protein in action. By mathematically modelling the three dimensional geometry of protein folding, researchers can develop new treatments.

AIDS research also benefits from this form of computer power. The World Community Grid has a FightAIDS@Home project to fight the every changing variants of this disease.

Astronomy buffs can help out with the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence with distributed computing pioneer SETI@Home, analysing radio signals received by the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Einstein@Home searches for gravitational waves from rapidly spinning super-dense neutron stars.

Three of the BOINC projects involve modelling the incredibly complex weather patterns and climate data for Earth and working out how human involvement can affect them. Researchers can change variables and simulate the results and refine forecasting techniques.

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, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


The Mousepad Index


Originally published 21 May 2006


Our community is online here!


A feature of the Halifax Herald