Distributed Computing

With each passing year it gets harder and harder to imagine what the world must have been like without computers, films, television, telephones, powered flight, and cable modems. Okay, maybe not the cable modem.

Every time I think I have a handle on the power of 20th century inventions, something else comes along to widen my short-sighted perspective. It’s like an baseball record which is constantly being broken–logic dictates that eventually there’s going to be a point of diminishing returns, a place where you’ll simply run out of room. But that point is nowhere in sight.

The thing that’s got me so sketched this time is a web site called distributed.net. Distributed.net is dedicated to solving incomprehensibly difficult problems using the collective power of computers hooked up to the Internet. The idea behind this is that there are millions of computers on the ‘net, and almost all of them are sitting idle 90% of the time. No one is using them. My own computer, for example. I’m on it probably 6 to 7 hours a day. What is it doing the other 18 hours? Nothing. It sits idle, and the number crunching power of the Pentium Pro processor in it is wasted. The guys at distributed.net write software to allow an idle computer to help solve problems far too large for even the most advanced supercomputers. Distributed.net bills itself as “the fastest computer on earth”, and my lowly desktop is part of that.

Right now they’re using this power to try and crack DES (the government’s Digital Encryption Standard) and RC5 encrypted messages. It’s part of a contest to try and determine just how safe certain encryption levels are. For example, distributed.net took less than 24 hours to crack a 56-bit key last week. So 56-bit encryption is no longer terribly safe.

How powerful is the concept of distributed computing? During last week’s DES-III contest, over 250 billion keys (possible codes for decrypting the encrypted message) were being checked each second.

To put this in perspective:

At this rate, if keys were dollars, you could pay off the entire U.S. debt twice every minute.

If keys were sheets of paper and you stacked the sheets up, the stack would grow 1,530 miles (2,460 kilometers) every second.

If keys were drops of water our flow rate would be 9.52 million gallons (35.7 million liters) per second. That rate could fill (or drain) Lake Erie in 136 days.

During the course of the contest, they checked enough keys to make a stack of paper 980 million miles (1,580 million kilometers) high, and would have flowed 605 billion gallons (2,290 billion liters), enough to flood the city of Chicago to a depth of 12.7 feet.

The software is very cool. The program is written so that it only makes use of unutilized clock cycles, so it doesn’t slow your computer down or rob it of horsepower. In fact, since I installed the distributed.net software, I haven’t noticed any change in its performance. But I have seen it checking an average of almost 480,000 keys per second.

There is a financial incentive in all this as well. RSA is offering $10,000 to the ones who decode the message. If your computer is the one that generates the key, you win a hefty chunk of that dough.



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