Facebook Useful? Who Knew?

Intel and Facebook Team to Tap Unused PC Processor Power

IntelHaving just finished the “Who Has the Biggest Brain” Facebook app (and scoring just ahead of a sixth grader), I found myself wondering if all this social networking really served any useful purpose.  Just then I came across an Intel Corporation press release describing Progress Thru Processors, a volunteer application Intel has built on the Facebook platform that allows people to donate their PCs’ unused processor power to non-profit research projects.

Faceboookers can contribute their excess computational resources to Rosetta@home, Climateprediction.net or Africa@home. Rosetta@home uses the additional computing power to help find cures for cancer, HIV and Alzheimer’s. Climateprediction.net focuses on increasing our understanding of global climate change by predicting the Earth’s climate and testing the accuracy of climate models. Africa@home looks for optimal strategies to combat malaria by studying simulation models of disease transmission and the potential impact of new anti-malarial drugs and vaccines.

Nice to see the Intel Corporation is continuing to find innovative ways to tap the power of microprocessors for good causes. It’s proof once again that providing a means to collect together lots of individual contributions can have a far-reaching impact. And partnering with Facebook allows them to reach a huge swath of individuals, who like me, may have been looking for something useful to do there.

facebookFacebook launched the application this week and it’s available to all users. (You can download it here.) The application automatically directs your computer’s idle processor power to one of these computational projects. The application will activate only when your PC’s processor is not being fully utilized. When your computer usage demands more processor performance, the application defers and sits idle until spare processing capabilities become available again.

The application runs automatically as a background process on your PC and Intel assures participants it will not affect performance or any other tasks, nor does it require you to leave your computer powered up unnecessarily. You can still make a contribution, just by keeping your PC powered on as you normally would.

For Progress Thru Processors, Intel has teamed with GridRepublic, a non-profit volunteer computing organization that brings together spare processing power with worthy projects in need of computing resources.  The program was also developed in collaboration with the BOINC project (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jim Witkin is a writer and researcher based in Silicon Valley focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers on topics that include: sustainable business practices, clean tech, the environment and next generation transportation technologies. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at jameswitkin@gmail.com

2 responses

  1. I think donating processor time to these efforts are worthwhile, but it should be understood that it comes with a cost.

    “Idle processor cycles” is a bit of a misnomer. When a processor is idle, it slows down to consume less electricity and generate less heat. When one of these processor intensive applications is run, the processor is heavily utilized, and runs at full speed.

    Although I haven’t measured this particular application, I have measured the difference in energy consumption on other similar, distributed computation projects:

    A computer with a low energy consumption VIA processor normally consumed 20 watts while on and idle. While running SETI@Home, it consumed 35 watts.

    A computer with a more standard Intel processor that consumed 40 watts while idle, consumed 70 watts while running a computationally intensive application.

    Laptops will experience the biggest difference in power consumption, because they are typically designed to have an extremely low power mode. Desktops will have a smaller difference in consumption because those processors typically have a smaller variance in power consumption between idle and busy modes, and because other components of the computer consume more energy all the time.

    If a million users contribute “idle” cycles, that could be as much as 20 Megawatts of energy consumption.

    1. William, you make a good point that there is still energy required to utilize the idle processor resources. But that same energy would be used by a group like SETI@home anyway to run their computations on their own computers. (SETI@Home is another GridRepublic project, btw.) I think the big savings here is on the computational hardware. By fully utilizing a microprocessor that has already been manufactured, you avoid the manufacturer of additional processors and the consequent resource and environmental impact. The distributed computing model also allows non-profits and pure research organizations to operate at a much lower cost. If they had to spend their funding on buying banks of computers, they have that much less available to run their operations and solve the big problems. So I agree, you still have to power the processors for all these additional cycles, but I think there are significant efficiencies elsewhere.

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