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SETI@Home goes BOINC

Hunt for ET folded into distributed computing project

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SETI@Home, the popular distributed computing project, will cease to be a standalone program on December 15.

The SETI team is throwing its lot in with BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, where computer users will be encouraged to donate their spare computing cycles towards a wider range of tasks including modeling climate change, molecular biology, high-energy physics as well as the hunt for little green men. The work unit totals of SETI@Home Classic users and group will be frozen at that time, and score cards will be published on the web.

Thereafter users can run a new version of SETI@home, based on BOINC, which lets users participate in more than one project, specifying what fraction of your computer time should go to each task. New program versions are downloaded automatically. SETI@Home plans to use this feature do a new type of analysis of radio signals, looking for short broadband pulses that could be evidence of life on other world's, black holes, or fast pulsars.

The change means users will have control over how their computer is used: for example, setting preferences for network bandwidth use and CPU time. SETI@Home's graphics have also been spruced up with a "more modern" 3-D look.

SETI@Home captured the public imagination and brought distributed computing projects to the masses. However the screen saver, which helps in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by analysing data captured by the world's largest radio telescope, has been criticised over the years as a waste of network resources and a potential security risk. Richard Carrigan, a particle physicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, recently even when so far as to suggest malign signals sent out by aliens could interfere with computers running the SETI@Home. Back on planet Earth, Charles E. Smith, a computer programmer at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services was sacked last year over allegations he broke rules by running SETI@Home on work computers.

Fight disease@Home

But you can't keep a good idea down and SETI@Home ignited the growth of other distributed computing projects, involving various scientific and medical research projects. An IBM-backed project, called World Community Grid, launched last year, aims to put the untapped processing power of thousands of unused computers into use; crunching numbers for scientists working to understand diseases like HIV, Alzheimer's and cancer. IBM has lent the project its backing to provide a measure of respectability, and allay corporate concerns about the security of downloading distributed computing software. According to IBM, more than 100,000 World Community Grid members are running on more than 170,000 computers around the world.

In the run up to World AIDS day Thursday, 1 December, IBM has launched a new research effort – FightAIDS@Home - to help battle AIDS using the computational power of World Community Grid. FightAIDS@Home is World Community Grid’s second major project (the first was the Human Proteome Folding Project) and aims to help develop "new chemical strategies to treat HIV-infected individuals in the face of evolving drug resistance to the virus". Volunteers will donate CPU cycles to the project in order to help researchers at San Diego-based Scripps Research Institute, a private, non-profit research organisation, with their work. ®

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