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Volunteering Computers for Science.

Wall Street Journal (10/20/09) P. D2; Singer-Vine, Jeremy

To aid in the number-crunching needed to process ever-growing volumes of data in biomedical and other types of scientific research, researchers are recruiting citizen volunteers to contribute the power of their idle household computers. This is possible thanks to a massive network that allows scientists to parcel out the work in small chunks. The volunteers download an application onto their system that connects to a network that includes other citizen volunteers and researchers. The network assigns each system a tiny piece of a project’s puzzle to solve, and sends the results back to the network’s server when complete. Volunteer computing efforts are usually founded on the open source software known as the Berkeley Open Infrastructure of Network Computing (Boinc). University of California, Berkeley scientist David Anderson, who created Boinc, says two key security precautions have been implemented to mitigate the open network’s security risk. One precaution uses digital signatures to prevent hackers from hijacking an existing project’s network. The second precaution blocks off all Boinc activity from the rest of a host computer, which prevents any malicious code from causing significant damage. Recent advances in Internet speeds and personal computer power have helped to triple the combined power of volunteer computing efforts over the past two years, according to boincstats.com. Currently, four million computers owned by almost two million users provide approximately 60 projects using Boinc with access to about 2,500 teraflops of processing power. Projects that take advantage of such volunteer number-crunching include IBM’s nonprofit World Community Grid, which lends research support to various medical and humanitarian studies.

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