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 Distributed Computing

Status: Submitted 20000313

%t Distributed Computing Projects
%n ?R?
%s GIMPS, SETI@Home and Amongst Others
%a Alex Gough (
%d 19991110
%d 20000310
%x Computers, Earth
%x RSA Broken By The Russians?
%k, seti, aliens, computer, code,
   mersenne, gimps

Many people assume that their computer is always working as hard as it possibly can. This is not true and most modern computers spend much of their time waiting to be told what to do next. This is not an ideal situation for a computer to be in as, although it cannot get bored, it is a waste of its potential power. You might wonder just how much your computer can do if this is all used. The answer is 'not a lot' but when N computers all work together on the same task this becomes 'not a lot' * N which which works out as being 'quite a lot really'.

This is similar to the proverbial piece of straw which broke the camel's back except that here there isn't any straw and we don't have any camels.

To harness this latent power, various groups around the world have written pieces of software which can be downloaded and run as a background process in this idle time. Usually a central server will supply each client program with a small chunk of data to work through then collect the results once the client has finished.

Because different computers work at different rates they will complete a given piece of work in different times. This allows for competitive rankings, the formation of teams and detailed statistics about the project. For some people the task they work on is less important than the amount and quality of statistics they will be able to generate. Often people will chose which project they assign their computer to on this basis.

So as to gain the maximum throughput of work units, the dedicated user will leave their computer on all day and all night. This can be inconvenient especially when the user has to sleep in the same room as a noisy machine and also uses up a lot of power. Of course this power is all converted into heat so can used instead of central heating for much of the year.

SETI@Home [1] is the best known of the distributed computing efforts. In SETI@Home signals received by the Arecibo radio telescope are carefully checked for even the slightest trace of an extraterrestrial broadcast. SETI@Home is the most popular programme as it has a lofty goal with little chance of success, making people side with the outside runner. Another reason for its immense popularity is their ability to manipulate the media to their own ends (which you would expect of an organization which exists to listen to alien versions of 'Friends') and a very attractive front end featuring all sorts of complicated graphics. [2], also known as project Bovine (hence the cow logo), allows its users to enter cryptography contests where a secret message is encoded by another organization and the task is to search for the key which will decode the data. Whoever finds the correct key normally gets a small prize. The point of the contests is to show how weak most encryption schemes are although it has taken the team more than two years to get only 18% through one of the competitions. also runs a search for optimal golomb rulers (OGRs). An OGR is the shortest ruler with a given number of marks on it such that no two pairs of marks measure the same distance. Rulers like this are useful for radio astronomy as the maximum amount of phase information (and thus detail) can be gained when the receivers sit on the points of an OGR.

The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search [3] or GIMPS for short is an attempt to use the combined computing power of thousands of people to find very large prime numbers. GIMPS uses algorithms which can only test primes of the form (2^n)-1 where n is a prime, these are called Mersenne primes. Prime numbers are used in cryptography, so in some small way the work of GIMPS balances the work done by . The Electronic Frontier Foundation has put up a large prize for whoever discovers the first prime number with over ten million decimal digits.

Of course you do not need to use a computer to participate in a distributed project. For instance, if you went down to your local park with enough friends and pairs of scissors, you would soon have the grass cut. If you become fantastically rich then you might want to distribute your entire life to other people. Have someone to clean your house, someone to dry your car and even someone to sleep for you when you feel tired [4].

So what are you (and, more importantly, your computer) waiting for? Get yourself a distributed application and you might become rich beyond your wildest dreams (assuming that your dreams aren't _too_ wild of course).

[4] The author is always open to offers of employment as a proxy sleeper.

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