The Power of One… How distributed computing can change the world.

[This was originally published on Aviary Magazine and mirrored on attrition.org. The exact publish date has been lost.]

  • October 19, 1999 – John Jackson of Montreal, Canada discovered the first million digit Mersenne prime number. John enjoyed the $50,000 reward and had his name added to the history books for his mathematical accomplishment.
  • March 18, 2000 – Kelly Jones of Irmo, South Carolina successfully defeated the RC5 challenge. This proved the long standing encryption algorithm was susceptible to a brute force attack.
  • July 4, 2008 – Dale Whitmore of Los Angeles, California discovers patterns in radio waves intercepted from 23 hr 19 min 4 sec RA, +22 deg 47 min 59 sec Dec on a base frequency of 1.420048826 Ghz. This essentially proved that intelligent life existed outside of our solar system.

Dream or soon to be reality? In the scenario painted above, each person is an ordinary ‘joe’. Just another random Internet user that believed in efficiency, and a greater good. A couple minutes of your time now could lead to big things in the future. Thanks to the power of distributed computing and creative individuals, the power can be in your hands now.

Distributed computing is the concept of a wide variety of people and computers all working together toward one goal. Typically, that goal is so large, it is accepted that a single computer can not feasibly perform the task. These tasks often require so much computing power, current technology can not meet the demands in a single machine. That leads people to using multiple computers to perform the task. In large corporations, you will often find two, ten, or a hundred machines handling all the web traffic. This is a small form of distributed computing.

Think larger than a big web site though. Think of tasks such as breaking encryption and figuring out large math equations. These challenges often require the power of thousands of today’s supercomputers. Since that kind of computing power is rarely found, and often inaccessible to the people attempting these challenges, they have to make due with a bit less. At that point, they turn to distributed computing. By harnessing the power of tens of thousands of smaller desktop machines, they can reach the same level of computing these supercomputers enjoy by themselves.

The software written to perform these tasks are typically designed so that the bulk of the work is done while your computer is idle. While you are at the keyboard working away, the program sits in the background doing little to no work. When you walk away, it recognizes that you aren’t using the computer, so it does. During this time, the software uses what they call “idle CPU cycles”. Since you aren’t using these CPU cycles, someone might as well.

There are currently three well known distributed challenges in operation today. For the average user with a single PC, it may be a bigger challenge choosing which of the three you want to participate in. Each of them have a certain appeal. Below are each of the three challenges, URLs for more information, URLs to download the software to participate, and my own comments.


GIMPS (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search)
a.k.a Prime

Main URL: http://www.mersenne.org
Download software: http://www.mersenne.org/freesoft.htm

From the page:

This domain was created as a home for the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS). Mersenne primes are named after the French monk Marin Mersenne.

The one and only Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. Help find a new Mersenne prime number. Put your name in mathematics history books forever! We’ve found three, but there are many more waiting to be discovered.

My comments:

The Prime challenge has an obvious appeal once you read more about it. If you are the one to discover one of these large primes, you can win $50,000 for your efforts. Just let your computer run this software, and there is an outside chance you can be well rewarded for your CPU time. Another appeal to this challenge that the RC5 challenge doesn’t offer, is adding your name to the history books. By discovering these primes, you will be one of the few to perform such a feat. Mathematicians and scholars around the world will forever read your name when studying about the history of prime numbers.


SETI@Home (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home)
a.k.a Seti

Main URL: http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/
Download software: http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/download.html

From the page:

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that will harness the power of hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. There’s a small but captivating possibility that your computer will detect the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth.

My comments:

The search for alien life and civilization. Wow. It goes without saying that this challenge could be the most phenomenal discovery in our history. Because of the small budget of the Seti project and the large sky, it is impossible for the team to monitor all intercepted radio transmissions. Their computers work round the clock pouring through these transmissions looking for patterns, but they simply aren’t up to the task. With their software, you can now join and search the sky along with them. Imagine your machine finding that pattern that will establish that we aren’t alone in the universe.


Distributed Net
a.k.a RC5

Main URL: http://www.distributed.net/
Download software: http://www.distributed.net/cgi/select.cgi

From the page:

distributed.net was founded to serve as a gathering point for research and projects related to distributed processing. To build up a network of computers over the Internet all coordinating on various tasks, with each computer working on the project it’s best suited to. Proving that when you add up all the idle time, on all the computers all over the Internet, that enormous tasks may be accomplished.

distributed.net will tackle large problems in encryption, finding large prime numbers, or playing chess at a level unknown previously. Other large problems that no individual, corporation, or government could tackle alone will be started as we find larger and larger problems to tackle.

My comments:

distributed.net is probably the longest running distributed challenge. In the past, they have worked to show that popular cryptography is not as strong as people think. One of their last victories was on January 19, 1999, when they proved that DES-III 56 bit encryption could be broken in 24 hours. 3DES encryption is a current government standard for protecting many facets of government computing. Obviously, if it can be broken in such a short time, its protection is short lived.

When participating in this challenge, you can check their server to see where you stand in relation to the thousands of others involved. You can join a team and watch the team advance through the ranks as well. If your machine is successful in breaking the encryption, the distributed.net team will share the reward for your efforts. Currently, if you beat the RC5 challenge, they will reward you with $2,000 for your effort. Obviously, this isn’t much compared to the Prime challenge, but climbing through the ranks of over 42,000 active participants can be fun.


How much do you use your computer? Even working sixteen hours a day on it, why not put the other eight hours to good use? Spare 386 sitting in the garage? It now has the perfect use.

ps: for those who may ask, I personally run RC5 and Seti on one machine, and Seti and Prime on my fastest machine.