FAQ: BOINC software for volunteer grid computing

Learn about the open source software behind SETI@home and dozens of other volunteer computing projects

Being middleware, BOINC isn't nearly as well known as some of the grid computing-based volunteer projects – like SETI@home and Rosetta@home -- that exploit it. But the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing is pretty amazing software. Here's a closer look.

View slideshow of 12 cool grid computing projects that you can volunteer your spare PC processing cycles to.

What is BOINC?

An open source software platform for volunteer and grid computing projects. The software runs in the background on any type of computer, exploiting otherwise idle computing resources. Scientists have used BOINC to create volunteer computing projects, universities use it to build virtual supercomputing centers and corporations use it for grid computing.

Where did BOINC come from?

David Anderson, a research scientist at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, founded the BOINC project in 2002. The National Science Foundation provides funding.

Do all volunteer grid computing projects use BOINC?

Nope. For example, Folding@home, a volunteer computing project out of Stanford University that seeks to reveal the mysteries of the protein folding process for the sake of battling diseases, started up before BOINC was around. But "pretty much all projects since 2004 use BOINC," Anderson says. And that includes SETI@home, which pre-dates BOINC, but transitioned to it.

Is there a concern that fewer people will be likely to support volunteer computing projects going forward because they're being encouraged to turn off their computers when they're not being used?

Per David Anderson: "In the early days of SETI@home and Folding@home (around 2000), volunteer computing was equated with screensavers -- i.e. , use your computer when you're not there. These days it's typically the opposite -- most people configure BOINC to compute only while they are there (BOINC runs applications at zero priority, so they don't have any impact on user-visible performance) and let the computer go into low-power mode at other times."

What should be the protocol for an employee who wants to volunteer his or her work computer's spare cycles to a volunteer grid computing project?

The BOINC project's advice is to get permission from whoever owns the machine.

Is it really safe to download volunteer computing project software?

Anderson says that BOINC has two levels of security mechanisms:

"1) the use of code signing, so that even if hackers break into a project's server they can't use it to distribute malware;

2) client sandboxing (applications are run under unprivileged accounts) so that even if a project's application is buggy or malicious, it can't read or write files other than its own."

The Michigan State University BOINC Researchers' page also notes that "The most common problem that may occur is heat issues for laptops, but this is easily fixed in the preferences, you can limit the processor from its normal 100% to around 85% or whatever is best for you."

What is Progress Through Processors?

An Intel-led effort to steer people toward volunteering their processor power to scientific grid computing projects. It takes the form of a Facebook application and goes through the GridRepublic Web site, which provides one-stop shopping for grid projects.

Anything else new with BOINC?

Per Anderson: "The main direction these days is the use of graphics processing units (GPU). BOINC supports them, and several projects have applications that run on them. GPUs will soon overtake CPUs as the main source of computational power in volunteer computing, and after that the sky's the limit.

It's likely that the combination of GPUs and volunteer computing will reach the ExaFLOPS level long before anything else (supercomputers, clusters, clouds)."

Where can I learn more about BOINC?

Start with the official BOINC Web site and the Unofficial BOINC Wiki

What about me?

I'm volunteering spare processing power to the Enigma@home/M4 project, which seeks to break three original Enigma messages -- the signals were intercepted in the North Atlantic in 1942. No, I didn't first seek permission from our IT department. More about that project here.

For more on network research, visit our Alpha Doggs blog.  Follow Bob Brown on Twitter.

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