Share your computer, not your cold

By Вen Li

A cure for cancer could come from your computer, according to United Devices–a company that organizes idling computers to do useful work.

"[The program] allows your computer to screen molecules that may be developed into drugs to fight cancer. Each individual computer analyzes a few molecules and then sends the results back over the Internet for further research," according to their web site.

Distributed computing projects such as the Intel-United Devices Cancer Research Project "parallelize" the computational task at hand. To parallelize a task, researchers divide a large hard-to-compute problem, unsolvable by any one computer alone, into many smaller and simpler problems solvable by individual PCs. The solution to the original large problem is obtained by combining the solutions to the smaller problems. Often, trillions of smaller problems need to be solved to arrive at a final solution. That’s where individual computer users can help by downloading and running a distributed computing client program.

Distributed computing clients use computing time that is otherwise wasted when a PC is turned on but idle. For example, as I type this, my text editor only uses about five per cent of the CPU’s ability to process at any given time. Some of that other 95 per cent could be used by other programs like Photoshop to filter an image or Netscape to download a file, or by a distributed computing client to calculate molecular geometry and interactions.

These calculations, like filtering or downloading can happen in the background but, unlike Photoshop and Netscape, don’t compete with other programs for CPU time. They only use computing time no other program wants or needs so they don’t slow down other programs.

To get work to do, the client connects to a site on the Internet when your connection is idle, asks for more data and then reports back to the site what it has done. Reporting allows the organizers of the project to mark off what has been done, as well as compile statistics on how much a user or team has computed. For some participants, being able to say "Team Operating System X folded more proteins than Team Swimming Bird Thing" is reward enough, while others are in it for the money offered for work completed, or for finding the correct key to decipher a message.

Reviewed below are some of the more popular distributed computing projects. Get permission before donating others’ computing time.

Established in 1997 by a handful of volunteers, is the oldest popular distributed computing project on the Internet and boasts 300,000 volunteers in 199 countries world-wide. started out by cracking encrypted messages for prize-money but has expanded into finding Optimal Golomb Rulers which have applications in X-ray crystallography and radio astronomy. Participants are rewarded with part of the prize money if they find the winning key in the encryption contests.

United Devices

United Devices, as mentioned above for their cancer research project, also has projects for genetic research and translating old documents into digital form. UD was founded by coordinators from and claims 400,000 users with almost 600,000 devices contributing 100 million hours of computing time.


For a long time SETI@home was the ‘other’ distributed computing project alongside Three-hundred thousand contributors from 226 countries have contributed over 600,000 years of computing time to analyse data collected from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. It’s a pretty screen-saver, too.

Folding@home / Genome@home

Stanford University’s Chemistry Department currently has two distributed computing projects underway. Folding@home focuses on understanding the folding of known proteins and assembly while Genome@home strives to develop new protein sequences that duplicate existing protein functions for use in the biomedical field. Stanford promises to release results from both projects to the public when they are available.

Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search

The goal of GIMPS is to find prime numbers of the form 2P-1 where P is a prime number. While this simply-stated goal may seem trivial or boring at first, only 38 such primes are currently known to exist, and finding the next one could earn you prize money from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Prime number research has applications in mathematics, computing, and the development of new algorithms with implications in computer security and privacy.

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