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What is volunteer computing?

Volunteer computing is based on the idea that most privately owned computers are idle most of the time, and could be used during their idle time to solve scientific or engineering problems that require large amounts of computer power.

The basic model is that the volunteers download software from the web that will do the scientific calculations. Typically this software works as a screensaver program, and every so often the program will ask the application to upload results and download more data to be processed.

Volunteer computing is also sometimes called public resource computing, internet computing, network computing, cycle scavenging, or "@home" computing. There are many volunteer computing projects in existence today, but by far the most popular is SETI@home.

Based at the University of California - Berkeley, SETI@home is a volunteer computing project which analyses the data of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI@home has been downloaded by more than 5 million PCs around the world, and has already used the equivalent of more than 1 million years of PC processing power.

You can read more about volunteer computing and other types of distributed computing at the GridCafé, www.gridcafe.org, an educational website.

What is BOINC?

In 2003, the team behind SETI@home launched BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), a general-purpose open-source platform which allows scientists to adapt their applications to volunteer computing. The BOINC team is based at the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL), at the University of California at Berkeley.

BOINC is a program which makes it possible to subscribe to one or more projects of volunteer computing. Once BOINC is installed on your computer, it downloads the data to be treated from a BOINC server, which is typically run by the scientific group who have developed the particular application you are interesting in running.

Once the data are treated, BOINC sends them back to the BOINC server, then downloads new data. BOINC allows you to run several different applications, allocating different percentages of your free computer time to each. There are many other features which allow you to adapt BOINC to your personal interests and computing environment. The use of BOINC is voluntary and free of charge.

By November 2005, there were eight applications running on BOINC, including ClimatePrediction.net, studying climate change, and Predictor@home, investigating protein-related diseases.

Click here for more information about BOINC.