The People's Supercomputer

Discovery.com
May, 2000
By Irene Brown

It sounds like the beginnings of a popular revolution in technology.

But this one has some capitalist undertones.

Distributed computing - where individual computers process data in parallel over a network - made its most visible debut on the Internet one year ago with the SETI@home project. So far, more than 2 million people have donated their PC's downtime to crunching data in SETI's search for extraterrestrial life. In the process, they have created the world's most powerful computer.

SETI-ing the Pace

Alien Hunt Pioneers New Computing Realm

The world's fastest supercomputer is not spending its time modeling nuclear weapons tests or whipping through mathematical algorithms for climate studies.

The computer is not even locked away in a secret government lab somewhere. It is sitting on your desks at home, at work, maybe even on your lap right now. And for the past year, the machine has had one job: to scan recordings of radio noises from space looking for a word from ET.

The supercomputer is actually a network of machines linked by modems to the Internet. The collective claims about 2 million members so far, including half a million steady participants. It was created to run a program called SETI@home, a screen-saver application that operates when the computers are idle.

The poster child for large-scale distributed computing

SETI@home made its debut in May 1999. It is expected to run for another year, but even if it folded tomorrow without detecting a peep of alien chatter, the legacy of SETI@home is likely to be profound.

"It is the poster child for large-scale distributed computing," says Larry Smarr, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

Smarr envisions a world in the not-too-distant future where home and office-based computers become a mega-computing resource for a variety of research, commercial and other projects. Like an electrical grid that provides power on demand, the Internet itself could become a global operating system powered by millions of PCs.

More than two million computers, located in 226 countries, have downloaded the SETI@home program.

Two factors drive the revolution: the sheer number of personal computers, which is expected to reach 1 billion within the next few years, and Internet connections that are always on, such as cable modems.

By 2003, the number of homes with cable or DSL computer lines is expected to grow from about 1 million to 15 million, says Smarr.

Buoyed by the success of SETI@home - project directors had hoped for 100,000 participants - a handful of entrepreneurs are racing to develop commercially distributed computing offshoots.

Here comes the venture capital

Raleigh, N.C.-based Porivo's business plan was convincing enough for a group of venture capitalists to offer up $1 million. Porivo co-founder Will Holmes is targeting the health care and financial services industries. Most likely, early projects will link a client's in-house computers only. For example, machines in the accounting department that work on payroll by day might be hooked up to secretaries' computers and engineers' workstations at night to design new drugs."

"There's a lot of demand associated with the need to be more efficient," says Holmes.

Another upstart, called Cosm, which is run by Adam Beberg of Minneapolis, is focused on developing a platform that would allow any distributed computing project to tap into the power of an Internet network.

"It's like inventing ftp or http format," says Beberg, "It's really a set of protocols and there's only room for one."

Even the SETI@home project director is turning his eyes toward a commercial future. David Anderson is working on ways to swell the Internet-based supercomputer to 100 million members and to tap its power for a range of environmental, ecological and other research programs.

"Whether or not we succeed at finding ET, we've validated this as a model for data processing on the Internet," remarks Anderson.

"Expanding the network and creating new applications for PC-based computing networks is a serious software-engineering challenge," says Smarr, "but the reward is going to be huge."

Today's Players

In Search of Prime Numbers

When Nayan Hajratwala signed up to use his computer to search for prime numbers, he was intrigued by the idea of participating in an Internet-based supercomputing project. Last year, Hajratwala found out that donating his spare computer time could be lucrative, too.

Hajratwala won $50,000 for inadvertently discovering a 2,098,960-digit prime number - the largest Mersenne prime number uncovered to date. Mersenne primes result from multiplying the number two by itself a certain number of times and then subtracting one. Prime numbers are divisible only by one and itself, such as the numbers three and seven.

Hajratwala is a member of PrimeNet, which runs the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS, project. Sponsored by California-based Entropia.com, GIMPS participants are currently on the hunt for a 10 million-digit number. The cash prizes are donated by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation to promote high-performance, virtual computing projects.

Entropia.com, meanwhile, plans to parlay the expertise gleaned from running GIMPS for three years into a well-heeled commercial enterprise catering to large-scale research efforts.

Breaking a Secret Codes

The challenge is formidable: to crack a 64-bit encryption code. But with 300,000 computers on the job, it's only a matter of time.

Distributed.net is one of the oldest Internet-based distributed computing efforts. Organization members already have broken four encryption codes and collected thousands of dollars in prize money put up by contest sponsors.

RSA Laboratories, the research arm of RSA Security, and French software developer CS Communications & Systems issued the challenge to demonstrate the need for tighter security standards.

Despite the shift toward commercial applications of distributed or collective computing, distributed.net plans to remain a nonprofit entity supporting distributed computing research efforts

Solving Global Problems

DCypher.Net has taken on a task of global proportions. Team members are running calculations that will help engineers design better enclosures for nuclear material.

The program casts hundreds of thousands of gamma rays from random points within a simulated radioactive source, then tracks their path through the radioactive matter, water enclosure and surrounding walls to calculate the gamma flux field around the storage vessel.

If altruism isn't enough to motivate participants, in March DCypher.Net announced it would be giving away $100 a week to a randomly selected team member who contributes completed work units.

Another environmental project currently collecting the names of people who would like to participate involves climate research.

The Casino-21 program, spearheaded by Myles Allen, a British climate physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England, proposes to use a weather-forecasting method known as the Monte Carlo to generate millions of possible climate models.

More than 20,000 people have already signed on to take a stab at predicting what the weather might be like in 2050.

Ones To Watch

Virtual Computing Goes Commercial

The idea of splitting up work among a network of computers has been around for decades, but without high-speed modems and the Internet, distributed computing projects were largely restricted to university labs and government research institutes.

Now more than a dozen companies are jockeying for position in a new industry just beginning to seep into public consciousness: the creation of a worldwide, high-performance virtual computing machine.

Some firms are positioning themselves to control access to the network; some are laboring to create a ubiquitous computer program that can run any distributed project on any kind of computer; and some want to affiliate with particular industries and applications especially suited for parceling out data analysis and computational work.

Here are some of the companies staking a claim in the virtual computing world:

Applied Meta
A commercial offshoot of a highly acclaimed University of Virginia program that developed a sophisticated distributed computing application called Legion. They claim to provide "a complete solution for any complex problem."

Centrata
Finalists in the closely watched MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition for best business plan, the company intends to lease computer processing time and unused hard drive space for its clients' applications.

Cosm
Company founder Adam Beberg is creating the software infrastructure to handle a variety of distributed computing projects. "By the time people realize it's cool, everybody will have it," says Beberg, a founder of one of the original distributed computing projects on the Internet, distributed.net.

Entropia.com
San Diego-based firm looking to tap millions of home- and office-based personal computers to work on massive scientific research programs, as well as commercial applications. Entropial.com sponsors the popular prime number distributed computing project called, "theGreat Internet Mersenne Prime Search." [link to Today's players page]

Porivo Technologies
Encouraged by the success of SETI@home, Porivo founders put together a business plan and landed venture capital financing and interest from companies in the health care and financial services industries to put idle PCs to productive use.

Popular Power
Currently in testing, the company's software is similar to the SETI@home screen-saver program. The firm plans initially to donate computing time to nonprofit agencies, and eventually compensate individual users and offices for participating in commercial projects.

Process Tree Network
One of the first for-pay distributed computing efforts, Process Tree has teamed up on research projects with the nonprofit DCypher.net. Process Tree plans to grow the number of computer users by offering additional incentives for bringing on new participants.


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