BOINC - The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing
Starting in 2002, the BOINC network has become the world's most recognized and largest volunteer computing platform. It powers a wide range of research projects, making the computing power of volunteers available for research computations. Everyone who owns a personal computer or a similar device can participate in volunteer computing. They let their devices carry out computations to support science projects of their choice. Many enthusiasts have formed communities around science projects that continuously grow. Researchers benefit from getting access to the untapped potential of idling devices around the world to accelerate their computation in ways never possible before.
History of BOINC
The open-source platform BOINC was developed in 2002 by the University of Berkley, California. The goal was to make the unused computing power available from a variety of computers over the internet or intranet (distributed computing) for scientific projects. Initially introduced as a SETI-Client, it should facilitate the administration of the SETI@home research project. SETI@home has set itself the task of locating extraterrestrial intelligence in space. For this purpose, radio telescopes are used to listen to narrow-band radio signals from space. Those signals are evaluated by computers of participating volunteers.
Due to lack of security and fraud protection, the SETI-Client has been further developed into the BOINC platform. The focus was on the separation between the management of projects and their scientific content.
Today, more than 4.5 million people and more than 50 volunteer-computing projects use the BOINC platform to advance science.
How does the software platform BOINC work?
BOINC, as a middleware software for work unit distribution, is an open-source technology on the server as well as the client side. Project-specific work units are assigned from a server, run by a project team, to the clients of computing volunteers who participate in that project. It can utilize the clients unused CPU (Central Processing Unit) and/or GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) processing power as well as special sensors. Solved work units are uploaded to the project server and, once confirmed, the volunteer's account is being rewarded with BOINC credits. These rewards are managed by the BOINC Credit System which will be explained in the next chapter. In the BOINC client, a volunteer can manually decide on every device attached to BOINC, which projects they want to contribute to. The BOINC client works on Linux, macOS, Windows, Android, and FreeBSD. Dependent on the project's applications, it can utilize AMD, ARM and Intel CPU architectures as well as AMD, Intel, and Nvidia GPU architectures. There are more than 30 active projects. Web-based account managers, such as the BOINC Account Manager (BAM), support the volunteers in controlling multiple devices.
What is behind the BOINC Credit System?
One possibility to confirm a work unit has been computed correctly is to distribute each unit to at least two participant devices. Only matching results count as confirmed. For better comparability of the recent activity of a volunteer, the Recent Average Credit (RAC) has been introduced. Gained credits exponentially lose their weight in the calculation of Recent Average Credit, thus recently gained credits are worth more than older credits. The BOINC Credit System serves as a measurement of a participant's contribution to a project. It assigns a score measured in Cobblestones, a BOINC specific computation unit based on the amount and efficiency of computation of the participant's devices. The accumulated credits can serve as an indicator of how much computing was used for which project. Each project server keeps track of the users credits. The score is also used to rank groups of participants that aim towards being the highest contributor. For example, the Gridcoin team with over 18,000 members is amongst the top ranking teams in the world. Gridcoin is a blockchain based cryptocurrency that uses the BOINC credit system to determine the number of coins rewarded to participants. To this end, the BOINC Credit System has been engineered to be fair and resistant to cheating attempts. Security measures include sanity checks and comparisons of statistics over multiple hosts to determine how much reward a project should grant. Ensuring participants are rewarded fairly is of the highest priority, especially since rewards for Gridcoin users are units of currency. To reflect a user's current activity in the rewards, the Recent Average Credit (RAC) is used to compute the number of credits received. This ensures that ongoing participation is of high value.
Advantages of the BOINC software
The following features help the BOINC network stand out and are explained in more detail below:
- Open software platform for grid computing
- Enables easy access for both researchers and volunteers
- One software to manage multiple projects
- Automatic distribution of work units
- Automatic distribution of software/updates
- Provides a measure of the individual contribution
- Project autonomy
- Volunteer flexibility
- Volunteer community features
- Additional incentive to contribute by Gridcoin
Automation and ease of use are provided by the BOINC network. That's what makes it unique for reaching computing power around the globe. The open source nature of the software helps to make it transparent, impartial, and secure. This transparency ensures a fair measure of individual contributions. Its established pool of contributors makes sure plenty of processing power is available to researchers. Instead of developing their own infrastructure, distributed computing projects can save resources and use an established system. This solves many possible issues like compatibility with newer systems and keeping all users up to date. Likewise, science enthusiasts can become volunteers much more easily by having a choice of research projects to support without having to install and regularly update multiple clients. This ensures the allocation of processing power can be managed in one place in the BOINC manager. Having a single up-to-date client helps to keep systems secure. The client's effort can be focused on avoiding security flaws in only one software system, protecting the interests of research projects and volunteers alike. Bringing together volunteers in one platform enables community features like rankings of contributors and research pools. These can be joined by the volunteers to jointly compete for rankings.
Goals of BOINC as a distributed computing platform
Ultimately BOINC strives to make the world better. Many of the projects using the infrastructure are enabling research that provides direct benefit to the quality of life of all of humanity. Most importantly idle processing power of already running devices is used to this end. That means the processing is highly efficient compared to the amount of extra hardware that would be required if all the computation was done locally by research centers. This leads to drastically reduced cost compared to renting computing power. Research that could otherwise not be done is thus enabled by the users of the BOINC network. The opportunity to participate may help generate interest in research projects and spread awareness about their importance. The rewarding mechanism using the credits serves to incentivize users through gamification.
Examples of public-resource computing projects that are using BOINC
The following listed scientific projects are integrated into the BOINC network:
- PrimeGrid: PrimeGrid searches for big prime numbers that can be used in cryptography to make communication and data encryption, in general, more secure.
- SETI@home: The first BOINC project has been the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at home project. It is still operational and searches for signals from an alien intelligence. Participant computers distinguish between natural radio signals and signals sourced from possible alien life activity.
- Universe@home: Universe@home is a project approaching topics in the research field of astrophysics. Amongst those are ultraluminous X-ray sources, gravitational waves, and supernovae Ia.
- World Community Grid: IBM's World Community Grid is an umbrella project with sub-projects for research in the fight Ebola, influenza or cancer, research in clean energy or the human genome.
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