Doing science at home: BOINC

Erhan Kavsun
4 min readApr 13, 2021

I have spend my last one or two years discovering what had been discovered at least a decade ago: GitHub, blockchain, microwave ovens, and some more. Wow, how much the world has advanced since I buried myself deep into my cave and looked at the world through my very tunnel-vision-goggles! Some of my discoveries happened through necessity: moving into an apartment that only comes with a microwave (weird) introduced me to technology of the microwaves, for instance. Some though, occurred through luck, like BOINC.

https://boinc.berkeley.edu

BOINC stands for "Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing". BOINC provides an open-source platform (more like a middleway system) for volunteer and grid computing. Simply put, the projects available at BOINC uses your computers' hardware to compute scientific tasks. By becoming a volunteer for the project, you become a part of the world-wide distributed computing chain.

How does it work? Well, you register your computer to the BOINC. The projects on BOINC create tons of small tasks which only require couple of hours/days to run and through the BOINC client distribute these tasks to the volunteers' computers. Each task is run individually on the volunteers' computers and the results are sent back to the main project servers. This a sophisticated version of you sending an .exe file to your friend through email, him/her running this .exe file for couple of hours, and sending you the results back via email.

BOINC has been available since 2004 and currently hosts 31 projects. These projects include Einstein@home, which searches signals from the neutron stars; LHC@home, which is part of the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN; and Rosetta@home, which uses your help to predict the three-dimensional structures of the protein. There are some more and you can reach to the full-list here. You can use it on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. You can even connect your Rasberry Pi to it!

To perform science, we need massive computing power. For instance, for a single research paper me and my colleagues managed to publish last year, we used around 10 high-end GPUs and 350 high-end CPUs constantly for 6 months. And this was just us, a team of 4 people. Now imagine a few thousands of researchers, similar to us, trying to to similar things, and not only for a single project but many simultaneously. This excludes projects like CERN which deals with petabytes of data. By now, you should start to get a vague idea.

To reach massive computing powers, we build massive computers, a.k.a super-computers. The one I am using is one of the largest in the continent and contains around 70.000 high-end CPUs and 200 GPUs. And this is only one. And there are many more located all around the world. And they are never enough!

BOINC tries to solve this gap between what is available (scientifically) and what is required. Nowadays it is not uncommon for someone to own a computer and sometimes multiple computers with various hardwares. It is also not uncommon that we leave the computers on even if we are not actively using them. This is, beside energy, is a waste of available computing power. For example, the computing required for the above research paper we published could have been easily performed on my home computer, if only I had 2.5 years. If my project was part of BOINC, the hundreds of small tasks I had to compute would have been sent to your computer, my neighbors computer, the guy at the corner's computer, etc.. And all that computer power would not have been just lost and my work would have been done.

Why would you join? Why would you use your computer, your electricity, your time to do my work? Well, this is for you to decide. You have the option to go through the projects and join to the ones that you think makes sense. This is purely altruistic, most people don't expect anything in return. If you think climate research is important and want to help researchers to come up with better and more accurate models, go ahead and help Climateprediction. If you think colliding sub-atomic particles at the velocities 99.99% of the speed-of-light is, beyond anything, is cool and you want to be part of this, just support LHC@home.

If you want something in return, there are couple of ways to seek for a reward. One possibility is to join GridCoin and collect rewards based on your contributions. Attention! I have no idea how this really works and what/how much you can achieve with that. Still, if it grabs your attention and go check it out. I'm working on my own experiment and I am planning to share how it turned out in the following posts.

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