At a Glance
- Promotes medical research
- Slightly increased power use
This distributed computing project uses your computer to promote research on Alzheimer’s, ALS, and more.
Folding@Home has nothing to do with laundry, even though that’s
the only kind of folding most of us ever do at home. Instead, it
has to do with health and medical research. This free program helps
scientists gain a better understanding a wide range of illnesses
including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis,
and other serious diseases.
“Folding” is something proteins do. In a nutshell, it’s a
process whereby the protein transforms from a random-looking string
into a functional three-dimensional structure. Sometimes proteins
can fold incorrectly, and this leads to a host of degenerative
diseases. If this description sounds a bit fuzzy, it’s not just
because it was written by a computer scientist trying to explain
biology: It’s also because it’s an incredibly complex process,
which has not yet been fully understood.
One way to understand protein folding (and misfolding) is to
simulate it. Such as simulation is a virtually unlimited computing
problem: The more processing power you have, the more complex your
simulation can be. And this is where your humble computer (or
awesome gaming rig) enters the picture.
Rather than invest in a huge supercomputer, Folding@Home
harnesses the collective computing power of Windows, Mac, and Linux
computers, as well as Playstation consoles. Each of these platforms
has a Folding@Home client.
I evaluated the Windows client. On the surface, it looks like a
screensaver with a simple configuration interface. It gets a small
chunk of work from the central Folding@Home server, crunches away
at the problem, submits the result and then gets a new chunk of
work to do. Multiply this by over 460,000 active clients, and
you’ve got one impressive supercomputer.
One thing I like about Folding@Home is that you constantly see results. The project has been active
since October 2000, and since that time, over 70 research papers
have been published using its data. On a more playful or personal
level, you can set a username for yourself and track your own
personal contribution over time using the project’s website. You
can even join a team and compete against other teams from around
the world. The teams page shows some formidable work done by
various computer enthusiast groups and overclocking forums.
You may think having an application use your processing time
would slow down your system, but Folding@Home was built to be
extra-considerate. It uses the lowest possible processing priority,
so whatever other task your computer has to perform is considered
more important. In my testing, I could feel no slowdown at all,
despite the Folding@Home client utilizing 41-46 percent of my CPU
time while I was working.
Since Folding@Home does make use of your CPU, it can cause some
increase in power consumption. When your computer is running on
main power, this should not be a concern. It may become an issue
when you’re working on a laptop in battery mode and every extra
minute of battery life counts. Fortunately, the client can be
configured to pause work while on battery power. Note that this is
not enabled by default, and the client will keep computing even
while on battery power if you don’t set it to pause.
As a client, this is not a very exciting application: You can
get it to display a cool-looking 3D molecule on your screen, and
that’s about it. The excitement comes later, when medical advances
fend off life-threatening diseases–and you know that you helped
find the cure.
Note: This link takes you to the vendor’s site,
where you can download the latest version of the software.