Many computer enthusiasts as well as casual users are
familiar with the various distributed computing projects such as Folding@home
And if there weren't enough familiarity for PC users, Sony's PlayStation 3
can also run Folding@home and does so very well thanks to its Cell Broadband
Engine. Microsoft also considered a Folding
client for the Xbox 360. Though its main processor may not be as capable as
Sony's Cell, its ATI-powered GPU may easily match or outperform it.
The magic behind distributed computing is in using all those
unused processing cycles where computers lie semi-inert, simply passing time by
spinning cooling fans. The various clients utilize unused cycles by crunching
numbers for a given project. While Folding@home studies different protein
folding interactions and SETI@home examines radio waves from space for signs of
extraterrestrial life, there are many other clients doing many other things.
All the unused time from all the processors on these distributed computer
networks adds up quickly. TeraFLOPS of data are crunched daily.
While not fitting into the same type of processing system as
Folding or SETI, Elizabeth Cochran, a seismologist at University of California,
Riverside's distributed computing project has the potential to save lives at
the drop of a hat -- or a tectonic plate. The Quake-Catcher Network will use spare
processing power as well as already installed accelerometers in laptops to
monitor for seismic activity.
The accelerometers in modern laptops are used to help
protect hard disk drives from suffering mechanical failure due to sudden
impacts. As they are designed to measure vibration, they are a perfect fit for
the Quake-Catcher Network's monitoring system. The group is also working on a
USB dongle seismometer for desktop use. In order to minimize inconsequential
data, the program itself doesn't monitor the accelerometers until after three
minutes of system inactivity, though with a desktop USB dongle, keyboard
smashing might be a mitigated issue.
Unlike the underground seismic sensors that dot southern
California, which, after the data is transferred to one of several
universities, takes 15 to 20 seconds to analyze, the network's seismic
monitoring would happen in real-time thanks to the way distributed networking
works. The monitoring network could be used as an early warning system to give
people in neighboring towns 10 to 15 seconds to prepare for the shock waves.
The data gathered by a dense network of monitoring stations
could also be used to map the seismic data from the event, giving scientists a
time line as well as information about material density and distance. The gathered
results will be freely available to the public and researchers.
Presently, the program only works on Mac laptops, but the
team, which consists of Cochran, Jesse Lawrence of Stanford University and
software architect and consultant Carl Christensen, plans to add
Hewlett-Packard and IBM laptops to the network this summer.
There are about 300 testers using the program worldwide
presently, about 100 of which are in the United States. Once testing is
complete, the group plans to release the software on BOINC, which also
runs the popular SETI@home and ABC@home distributed computing projects.