UC Riverside researcher's earthquake monitoring system via distributed computing will soon be a reality.

Many computer enthusiasts as well as casual users are familiar with the various distributed computing projects such as Folding@home and SETI@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.

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