Many people are oblivious to the fact that there is quite a lot of computing power going unused each and every day. The fact of the matter is, nearly everyone has a desktop computer or a laptop computer these days. However, how often do we put our actual computing power to use? Most of the time we are not using our computer for very demanding work--sometimes we will render a video here and there, play a few games, or do some other work that actually uses our computing power.
Folding@home simulates protein folding using distributed computing. It currently operates at above 7 native petaFLOPS, with a large majority of the performance coming from GPU and PlayStation 3 clients. In comparison to this, the fastest standalone supercomputer (non-distributed computing) in the world (as of November 2010, Tianhe-I) peaks at approximately 2.56 petaFLOPS.
Image Source: news.cnet.com
Image Source: news.cnet.com
Now with this being said, there is a large amount of computing power that we can still tap into. Imagine if everyone's computers were combined together and synchronized together to take on even the most challenging computational problems, such as protein folding or galaxy formation. That is what the BOINC project does (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing).
How it works is simple. Say your computer is idle for an hour or two a day, or you're simply surfing the internet and not using your compute for much more. Well, in that amount of time you can leave BOINC running in the background and it would have completed several work units (WU's) which will be sent to the central server and then used in conjunction with thousands of other work units to observe the characteristics of protein folding (crucial in cancer research--folding@home), galaxy formation (MilkyWay@home), mathematical problems (abc conjecture in number theory--ABC@home), and much more.
This way, you are tapping into the unused computing power of your computer and contributing to the advancement of mankind at the same time. It's a wonderful way of utilizing unused resources in our world for advanced research.
MilkyWay@home renders complex N-body simulations which are used to generate 3D dynamic models of stellar streams near the Milky Way galaxy.
Image Source: Wikimedia.org
Many computer enthusiasts also use the BOINC platform to test their computer for speed and performance, since it uses up every bit of computing power available, it is a good stress test for overclocks and gamers. However, the beauty of BOINC is that it is simple to use and can be used by anyone--computer savvy or not.
Take for example folding@home (though not technically a BOINC project, it is distributed computing). It is a single download which you install and then simply run to compute work units. Many people also join teams and organizations to see who has the most points or work units. It turns into a competition for the benefit of all!
The unique feature of BOINC is that it can attach not only one project, but nearly an unlimited amount of distributed computing projects. It is the most popular platform under which many distributed computing projects thrive.
Image Source: boinc.berkeley.edu
If you are interested in participating in the BOINC project for distributed computing, you can start today. There are many projects available. In some instances you can even use your graphics card to do work that would normally take hours--in a few minutes (for those of you with powerful graphics cards out there).
Some popular distributed computing/BOINC projects are:
folding@home: designed to perform computationally intensive simulations of protein folding and other molecular dynamics (MD), and to improve on the methods available to do so (though not technically a BOINC project, it is distributed computing).
MilkyWay@home: attempts to generate highly accurate three-dimensional dynamic models of stellar streams in the immediate vicinity of our Milky Way galaxy.
SETI@home: to analyze radio signals, searching for signs of extra terrestrial intelligence, and is one of many activities undertaken as part of SETI.
LHC@home: to help maintain and improve the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which became active in September 2008.
PrimeGrid: project for searching for prime numbers of world-record size.
Climateprediction.net: project to investigate and reduce uncertainties in climate modelling.
Astropulse: to search for primordial black holes, pulsars, and ETI.
Einstein@home: searches through data from the LIGO detectors for evidence of continuous gravitational-wave sources, which are expected for instance from rapidly spinning non-axisymmetric neutron stars.
Personally, I am currently active on MilkyWay@home and folding@home and plan to try out many other distributed computing projects soon!
Let me know which project you plan to join in a comment!