Standing On The Shoulders of Each Other

Nicola Vincent-Abnett posted an inspiring article this morning which splits people into four groups by level of technological access. If you are reading this you are almost certainly in the highest, and therefore most energy-consuming, group. As she points out, the onus is on us as members of the group to both reduce consumption and mitigate the impact of our consumption. While some of the steps might need the innovators she praises, we can all do more to not only reduce waste but support innovation by donating the time your computer is not working at full capacity.

Your computer sometimes uses all of its processing power and memory to fulfil a task at your request, but most of the time it does not. Take this paragraph as an example: your computer downloaded the paragraph, which used resources, but now the words are displayed merely keeping them on the screen uses a much lower amount. As we often have a computer built to handle the biggest demands we could put on it, but do not ask this maximum all day, every day, much of the time resources are sitting there unused.

In contrast, researchers are fighting for time on computers that are running at full capacity, delaying innovation.

Some of you will remember the SETI project using the internet to borrow some of the spare time on home computers. However, computer linking is not limited to the search for extra-terrestrial life. In 2003 grid computing cut down the time to research smallpox treatments from over a year to three months. As I write this blog the spaces between my words, the moments when I stop to read through a draft or reach for a dictionary, any time my computer is not focussed solely on my tasks, are being used to model more effective solar panels or potential protein matches for malaria cures via the World Community Grid.

I try to always switch my computer off completely unless I am actively using it, and I do not view donating idle time as a reason in and of itself to change that behaviour. However, sometimes it is idle for one reason or another. Now when I go to the bathroom, make a drink, answer the telephone, or do any of the other short tasks where it would be obsessive to perform a shut-down and then restart the computer is doing something worthwhile.

As my computer is almost always either on and in use or off, I am not currently limiting idle usage; however usage can be limited by criteria such as time-slot or percentage of processor resources. And for those of you who enjoy keeping score, there is even a points system and rankings for how much time you donate.

Are you already using grid computing? Do you think it is a bad idea?


6 thoughts on “Standing On The Shoulders of Each Other

  1. Anyone who owns a PS3 should know how this works by now, the option to ‘donate’ processing power has been on the cards for a while now. I donate when I can, but with my broadband company providing less than adequate bandwidth at times it can be a pain trying to help out and get your daily business done.
    The problem with Grid Computing is that there is no central system for people to donate their spare processing power. Cancer Charities are trying to break down the DNA of dozens of cancer cells so they can see if there is any core DNA they can target with future treatments. If there was somewhere for people to sign up and donate not only money but processing power, then we could make some real headway against it.
    The only problem is security, for you and your files.
    Grid computing, being a massive none centralised network, s vulnerable to attack by opportunists and hackers looking for your data. To make such a system work for everyone, the security side of things MUST be both active and aggressive. And that costs time and money, I.E. the downside. Its probably cheaper compared to having a massive computing centre, but its still a worry that can put people off.

    I could go on (oh how I could go on) but I’ll leave my piece at this point.


    1. Good points.

      Apart from when the work unit is being sent or received by the manager I have not needed an internet connection to handle work, but am currently signed up to larger units; if I were receiving many small units I could see it causing delays.

      WCG is some way toward centralisation as it gathers together research from anyone who wants to submit a project. I agree it could be better though.

      I am not a security expert (and would not post holes here even if I were) so cannot comment on the real possibility of data-theft through WCG or other schemes. I feel it is worth doing but know people who do not trust online security nearly as much, and would probably not do it myself if I worked in financial services – or at least not on the same machine.


      1. The data theft is a bit of a two edged sword of ‘What they can get away with’ and ‘What everyone believes a hacker can get away with’. I blame films that make hacking look like a five minute montage of furious key tapping. Hacking requires knowledge of how a system works, being able to observe how the data moves and being able to work out cyphers AND be able to program to a certain degree. It also takes time, effort and research to pull off properly.

        I’ve seen it done live and it took a guy a few hours to work out how to get around a banks firewall (was part of a security demonstration) using rather archaic software on both sides.

        When it comes to Grid Computing is all down to how much hard drive and CPU you can allocate to the process, which if its don properly should be done using a little known (but incredibly useful) RAM Drive. Take the average 4-8GB of Ram a modern pc now comes with, turn that into a hard drive that can operate without physical processing restrictions and BOOM, instant super computer. They’ve been possible for over a decade with the only restriction being the physical architecture of the computer itself. With the 32GB of ram available on some high end games machines, RAM Drives are solution to the problem as you can run a pc without having to access you hard drive.

        If you wanted to run a GRID, then the RAM Drive is the solution. Assign a portion of your ram to donate to the program along side the amount of bandwidth and processor you can spare (upto 50%) and let the program set up the partition offline. The program that runs will have certain restrictions, for example, the ability to see your hard drive or storage, only the network protocols linking it to the wider grid. You stay safe, and you contribute.

        Or at least, that is how I would do it.

        A RAM Drive is not to be confused with an SSD drive, although the basic principle is the same and the hard drive could be used in this manner, you’d still have to partition off a large enough space to donate that you could never touch during the process. And given the limited space on an SSD so far, you’d need two installed to make it worth trying.

        To be fair a GRID would only require the hard drive for the set-up software each time it is rebooted so that it could A) set up the active program that the network requires to interface, and B) manage the active space or partition and the data its processing. It should, in theory, never have the capacity to overstep those bounds and access anything else. But damn those five minute montages. I’m not a hacker, I don’t know how to code (not for lack of trying, I’m just terrible with languages), so I don’t know the systems well enough to make an accurate guess on how easy or hard it is. But the threat alone is enough to put many people off donating, despite the fact their pc’s could already be riddled with Malware and viruses already.

        If they want to sell GRID computing then they need to work on allaying peoples fears of hacking.


        1. More good points.

          One issue with a segregated space might be that the people who most overestimate the risk of hacking closely overlap the people least able to set up/monitor more complex computer structures, so would still be trusting the program to make itself safe.


  2. Yep, I’ve been doing the SETI At Home thing for several years now. My dad got me into it.

    I think distributed computing is one of those things that many, many more people would do if they only knew about it. If your computer’s going to be idle anyway, it’s kind of a no-brainer (security issues aside). But for the less tech-obsessed among us, it can be an easy thing to miss – or not understand.


    1. I got into it through word of mouth too.

      I know my post has inspired a few people to look into it, so hopefully it will take it slightly closer to a tipping point where it is common knowledge.


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