Distributed computing erupted onto the scene in 1999 with the release of SETI@home, a nifty program and screensaver (back when people still used those) that sifted through radio telescope signals for signs of alien life.
The concept of distributed computing is simple enough: You take a very large project, slice it up into pieces, and send out individual pieces to PCs for processing. There is no inter-PC connection or communication; it’s all done through a central server. Each piece of the project is independent of the others; a distributed computing project wouldn’t work if a process needed the results of a prior process to continue. SETI@home was a prime candidate for distributed computing: Each individual work unit was a unique moment in time and space as seen by a radio telescope.
Twenty-one years later, SETI@home shut down, having found nothing. An incalculable amount of PC cycles and electricity wasted for nothing. We have no way of knowing all the reasons people quit (feel free to tell us in the comments section), but having nothing to show for it is a pretty good reason.
Rises and falls
SETI@home’s history is emblematic of the churn that typifies the distributed computing world. Another major effort came from IBM; its Corporate Social Responsibility division was involved with the creation of the World Community Grid, a series of life science projects searching for treatments for AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. IBM donated its technology and talent to the project, which kicked off in 2004. But in 2021, IBM transferred the World Community Grid assets to Krembil Research Institute, part of the University Health Network (UHN) of Toronto. A UHN spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
With the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, there was a new darling in the distributed world: Folding@home, a simulator trying to understand how proteins adopt functional structures. Folding@home had been around for more than 20 years simulating protein folding to understand how diseases were formed. And it had something to show for this work: more than 230 peer-reviewed papers on its findings over the decades. But, with proteins from SARS-CoV-2 to study, Folding@home became the It Project. So many people launched it on their computers that it broke the exaFLOP barrier long before supercomputers did.
But as the pandemic waned, so did interest in the project. Greg Bowman, the director of Folding@home and a professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, said the project skyrocketed from 10,000 active users to 1 million but quickly dropped to around 45,000 active users—which is still quite a gain over the pre-pandemic numbers.
Bowman thinks there is a combination of reasons for interest dropping off. “The pandemic gave huge motivation and a lot of time for new hobbies. Lots of organizations had idle computers they redirected to Folding@home. One example: FIFA didn’t have any need to scan YouTube for pirated content since no games were happening.” It didn’t last, though. “Inflation and energy prices soared,” Bowman said.
Even DistributedComputing.info, an aggregator of distributed projects, had gone a few years without an update before its January 2023 update. But the site’s operator, Kirk Pearson, says he hasn’t abandoned the project; he’s just been busy with real-life matters.