Now, Android phones can help solve the mysteries of the universe
- By Patrick Marshall
- Aug 13, 2013
While your Android smartphone is charging overnight, you could be giving its computing power to scientists searching for alien life or cures for diseases.
The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), an open-source system for volunteer grid computing, recently added support for devices running Android 2.3 or later. Already, approximately 20,000 smartphones have joined the network's 500,000 desktop and notebook PCs, said project founder David Anderson.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, BOINC was created in 2002 to offer scientists low-cost computer resources comparable in power to supercomputers. It does so by distributing computing jobs to run on "volunteer" computers.
Volunteers can download the BOINC software by visiting the BOINC website. After installing the software, the computer's idle time can be used by projects supported by BOINC. (Versions of BOINC are available for Windows, Macintosh, Linux and, now, Android.)
The server side of the project is"a bit more complicated," said Anderson, a computer scientist at U.C. Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory. The project uses the MySQL relational database to track all of the volunteers, all of their computers and all of the jobs in progress, and distributes the work across multiple servers.
"Most of these projects are processing a huge number of jobs. Some of them go through 1 million jobs a day," Anderson said. "Having a server that is able to send out that many jobs and process that many completed jobs is actually quite a challenge in terms of performance.”
The key is scalability. “A lot of our effort has come to making the server software scalable,” he said. “You can run the whole thing on one computer if you want, but at some point you're going to run out of power on that computer. So we have set things up so that the server software is made up of a whole bunch of separate programs that you can actually run on different computers. You can expand the capacity of your server as the number of volunteers increases."
Using BOINC with a volunteer cell phone is a little different than using it with desktop and notebook computers. Recognizing that mobile devices are different, Anderson said the software was designed to kick in only when the device is plugged in to a power source and is on a WiFi network. In short, BOINC won't be using up your phone’s available minutes.
As for security, Anderson is reassuring. "We've never had a single security incident," he said. "We have paid very close attention to that issue."
Volunteer clients are protected by a code-signing system. "The applications that are distributed by the project have to be signed with the key, and the project keeps that key on a separate secure code-signing computer," he said. "So even if hackers break into the servers they won't be able to produce valid signatures for their malware and, therefore, the client will reject them."
Currently, 50 scientists have projects running on BOINC's network, including one running climate simulations, several working on astronomy-related projects and some doing biomedical projects.
Anderson would like to see the number of projects running on BOINC rise. And, he said, there's certainly plenty of demand.
So what's the snag? There are two hurdles to clear. First, there's a need for PR. "There are thousands of scientists in the world who need a lot of computing power and most of them don't even know about BOINC," Anderson said.
Second, many scientists aren't computer savvy enough to manage projects on BOINC.
"Of course, we've tried to make the software easy to set up on the server side, but the scientists in many cases, even though they use computers for a living, they may not actually have very good computer skills themselves," said Anderson. "They run programs, but they don't develop software, they don't do system administration, they don't how to set up a database server. The best solution is to encourage a model where the projects are run by IT people."
Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.