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Volunteer computing in 30 "

How it started

An Interconnected World

In the mid 1990s, millions of computers isolated in offices and homes around the world, became linked to one another through the Internet. By 1996 Internet traffic was 25 times greater than it had been two years previously, and it was during this boom period that the idea grew to use combined power for distributed computing and scientific research. 

Citizen Cyberspace

Volunteer computing really captured the public imagination with the launch of the SETI@Home project in the late 1990s. SETI, which stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, was launched in 1999 by a group of space scientists and computer programmers at the University of California.

The programme farmed out data from radio telescopes to volunteers, whose computers automatically sorted through the telescopic signals for possible signs of alien life. Greater computing power from volunteers enabled searches to cover larger frequency ranges with more sensitivity. SETI@home accomplished within months calculations that normally would have taken decades.


It wasn’t long before scientists in other fields became interested in volunteer computing. In 1999, the Folding@home project was launched by a Stanford University chemist, Vijay Pande. Professor Pande’s lab used volunteer computing to decipher how complex proteins fold and miss-fold - an important to step in understanding diseases such as Alzheimer’s and various cancers. In 2007, the processing power of PlayStation 3 helped Folding@home reach a petaflop - a milestone never before reached on a distributed computing network.

Help from BOINC

Volunteer computing was fully embraced by a growing number of institutions and scientific disciplines in 2003 when David Anderson, a project director at SETI@home, launched the first open-source software designed for desktop grid computing- BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing).

Today, this easy-to-use computer code is available to anyone who wishes to launch such a project. With relatively minor modifications, the BOINC code can be used for projects in almost any field, and is now the basis of the largest public computing grid (World Community Grid), as well as many others.