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Supercomputing at home

The BOINC initiative uses the computing power of home PCs to fuel research projects in various fields of science on everything from the search for extraterrestrial life to studies on climate change. Worldwide, there are about 350,000 volunteers who share their computing power to this end.


The Einstein@Home program
helped with the discovery of a
new pulsar located 17,000 light
years from our galaxy this summer.

Unity equals strength, and now more than ever, is the theme of the BOINC initiative. The 348,607 volunteers with their 579,754 computers "harness a global processing power of an average of 5.428 PetaFLOPS. The fastest supercomputer, the Cray XT5 Jaguar, has a sustained processing rate of 1.759 Pflops,” said Lluís Martí, Catalonia’s BOINC team leader since 2007.

Starting up a computer and working with an existing operating system means taking advantage of between 0.4% and 5% of the capacity of these machines, said Martí. "This means about 95% is wasted. If we multiply that by the millions of personal computers that are on every day, wouldn’t it be magical to use this potential for research? This is the goal of BOINC.”

Astronomy, medicine, climatology, mathematics and physics are the main fields assisted by distributed computing BOINC is born from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program at the University of Berkeley opened to the public on March 17, 1999, which aimed to analyze radio signals in search for extraterrestrial life thanks to the addition of the computing power of PCs joined together via the Internet. A server hosted in the University of California linked the machines, so that while waiting for news from outer space, the viability of volunteer computing was also tested. The first years of SETI highlighted a significant error in calculations, and BOINC was developed with the intention of improving the platform. David Anderson is its creator, and, since its public launch in June 2004, the program has been gaining adherents.

Anyone interested can participate in one or more research projects BOINC collaborates with. "There are private companies that decide to contribute, be it for maintaining the performance level of their computers, to get a tax deduction or for indirect advertising. IBM is one company that has been heavily involved," said Martí, "but we are mainly
individuals." The BOINC distributed computing system gathers the unused power of computers connected to the platform and is organized by teams (it has been seen that people who sign up as a team are less likely to drop out of the program). Data is divided into smaller work units. Each unit has three exact copies that are sent through the Internet to different computers. After being analyzed by BOINC on return, if the results of the three calculations match, they are considered approved.

Passionate Users

"You hold above average computer skills, are curious or passionate about science or have had a personal experience that made you decide to share your computing power to advance research in the world of medicine." This is the predominant user profile for the BOINC community, "an open source project with free software under the GNU (General Public License) funded by the National Science Foundation”  summarized Martí. BOINC Catalunya is one of the most active groups, with 1,143 volunteers, but its director believes that "the Alliance Francophone and SETI.USA do very good work."

Astronomy, medicine, molecular biology, climatology, the earth sciences, mathematics, physics and chemistry are the main areas of activity promoted by the BOINC distributed computing platform. The radio search for evidence of extraterrestrial life (SETI), the study of gravitational signals emitted by pulsars (the Einstein project) and an analysis of climate forecasts from real data (Climate Prediction) are examples of projects helped by volunteers from BOINC. It is not the only platform, but it is the most powerful. Precisely, August 12 was a day of great satisfaction for the volunteers of the Einstein@home project: a radio pulsar was detected among the data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, named PSR J2007 +2722, at 40.8 Hz and located 17,000 years light from our galaxy. And that has not been the only success story.

"The benefits are constant," said Marti. "Malaria Control, for example, participates in simulations of epidemiological factors such as climate and vectors of transmission to anticipate and more effectively fight the spread of the disease by distributing nets and vaccines in appropriate places. A pioneering project in biomedical research in Catalonia is the project PS3GRID, http://www.ps3grid.net/, which carries out molecular simulations with the PlayStation. "

Hooked on astronomy "In early 2001 my brother left me a diskette with a post-it that read: ‘Look at this and flip out! (requires Internet).’ Sure enough, on April 2 I installed this little program called setiathome.exe and words can not describe my reaction,” said via webphone Jordi Portell, coordinator for SETI@home Catalunya since June 2002. PhD in Applied Physics and Science Simulations, Portell joined the distributed computing platform "to harness the untapped potential we have in computers," he said.

Astronomy is one of the main interests of Portell and the reason he signed up to SETI@home. He has also participated in research projects on "galactic structures, the evolution of the universe, malaria or proteins for cancer or AIDS research.” For him in represents zero effort and in return, "you have the satisfaction of contributing to science and knowing that without your help the project would not be possible”

Signing up for BOINC The first step to join a distributed computing network such as BOINC is to go to the website (http://boinc.cat/) and choose the field you want to collaborate with. "Once the user is clear about what project to participate in, they must download and install the program http://boinc.berkeley.edu/download_all.php. A window appears asking for the project, email, a password and a computer. If the computer is connected to the Internet it will download the first packet of information,” said Lluís Martí.
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