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The 'greenest' volunteer grid of them all?

Mark McAndrew, of Charity Engine, speaking at TNW conference in 2011.
Charity Engine promises to be the world's greenest volunteer computing grid by moving processing jobs to the coldest parts of the globe, therefore reducing its overall energy usage. Image courtesy Robert Proksa stock.xchng.

Last week, we brought you seven innovative ways to cool a scientific computer. Now, we've been informed that there's an eighth one known as the Charity Engine. It's a new volunteer computing project that claims to be the World's cheapest and greenest cloud computing platform. It stays cool by automatically shifting data processing to computers in the coldest parts of the globe, reducing the overall heat generated globally.

Charity Engine officially launched to the public on 14 December 2011 and just joined the International Desktop Grid Federation. "Initially, the public was not convinced. But, articles in the technology press, promotion by charity websites, plus our first $20,000 (€15,000) payout have helped to show people that Charity Engine is for real. There are currently 2,300 PCs on our grid, with 70% active," said Mark McAndrew, CEO of Charity Engine.

Charity Engine's main goal, like many volunteer projects, is to use the idle time of computers that are already switched on for processing small pieces of large computing jobs. Charity Engine is unique in that it converts this into money for international charities, such as Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and Oxfam.

The volunteer grid sends out packets of processing jobs to volunteers. When each PC has finished part of the puzzle, it sends back the correct answer. "Science and industry provide the money. The profits are shared 50-50 between charity partners and volunteers in the form of cash prize draws," said McAndrew. The next cash prize payout will be around March 26.

"We were invited to join the project last year. It generated a phenomenal amount of interest in social media circles. From the outset, we were excited about the innovative approach to fundraising. We're two months into what we hope and expect to be a long and rewarding partnership. The Charity Engine brings a number of really important things to the sector, with donor fatigue and the credit crunch hurting charities. To have interesting new ways to support good causes that cost so little to the user is vital," said Chris Ashworth, corporate partnerships manager at Oxfam GB.

Charity Engine could also represent the 'greenest' volunteer computing project yet.

Follow the Moon

The volunteer grid has chosen to sacrifice performance for efficiency. The default setting for running volunteer CPUs is 60%, not 100%. Using a technique called Winternet, the Charity Engine also shifts processing to PCs in the coolest parts of the World. For home PCs this is usually at night.

"So far, most users don't override the default settings. Winternet is really simple and something every other volunteer grid should be doing as well. All you need is weather data, which is freely available, and IP addresses. Winternet puts these two together.

"If it's midnight in winter, you can be fairly sure that a PC is not being air-conditioned. If it's midday in Dubai, then the opposite applies. We can remotely throttle back maximum CPU usage, say from 20% or 60%, or just send a PC the most CPU-light tasks. All these settings can be overridden by the user at any time," said McAndrew.

This form of energy efficiency is known as a 'Follow the Moon' system, by which companies with distributed data centers save costs, moving workloads to data centers in different time zones during off-peak utility rates.

"Only a global grid can really take advantage of global weather patterns. Our grid is still in its infancy. The total energy use is not an issue yet. But, if we end up with millions of PCs, then it will be of great importance to us. My personal opinion is that the energy costs of computing are trivial compared to the immense benefits. Charity Engine is potentially the World's largest computing platform, probably its greenest, and guaranteed to be the World's cheapest platform," said McAndrew.

- Adrian Giordani

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