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Sun Microsystems and the University of California, Berkeley are ready to take their search for extraterrestrial life to a new level. They're getting ready to BOINC.

In keeping with its long-standing commitment to Berkeley, Sun is donating a fleet of servers to power the next generation of the SETI@home project - the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing or BOINC. The BOINC software is currently in beta and promises to give SETI@home users far more options in their shared computing efforts when the first version of the code is released early next year. SETI@home has linked millions of computers in the hunt for aliens, but with BOINC users will be able to divvy up their compute power among several projects at one time, including cancer research and climate modeling.

For its part, Sun is donating some of its midrange Solaris servers and some workstations. In addition, the SETI@home crew is dabbling with Sun's JXTA peer-to-peer protocols for future versions of BOINC.

"The big new development is that we are trying to generalize distributed computing," said Dan Wertheimer, director of the SETI program at Berkeley. "Users will be able to set say 20 percent of their spare CPU power to work on global warming and then 30 percent for drug research and so on. We are trying to make a way for more scientists to make use of these volunteers and volunteer computers."

The SETI@home project has done the most to promote the idea of distributed computing. With the computer power of over 5 million volunteers, SETI@home becomes one of the largest computers in the world. Some companies have piggybacked on this idea by creating their own distributed computing programs for conducting research, while others have tried to use distributed computing internally to churn through large jobs. While workers are at home sleeping, their computers are humming along.

Researchers from around the world are trying to have their particular tasks built into BOINC. An Oxford team working on global warming is visiting the Berkeley labs this week.

So how successful has the SETI program been?

"We haven't bagged any aliens yet," Wertheimer said. "But I'm still optimistic in the long run. Earthlings are just learning how to do this."

More powerful computers and a growing number of SETI volunteers are helping the researchers scan more and more "channels" looking for signals from aliens. BOINC will hopefully attract more people to the distributed computing idea and push the research even further. With the new software, researchers will start examining black holes, pulsars and a host of other space phenomenon.

You can join the El Reg SETI@home team here or do some cancer fighting over here.

We'll be sure to get BOINCing as soon as the code had a public release. You can also BOINC yourself here. ®

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