New mobile app crunches researchers’ data

Renting time on supercomputers can be expensive and prevent some researchers from crunching the sometimes massive amounts of data generated by their projects.

A new application developed by UC Berkeley researchers will harness mobile phones — thousands of mini-computers that often lie idle — for use as the equivalent of a multimillion-dollar supercomputer.

The new app, developed for the Android operating system by the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, is based on its original Linux-based app for PCs. The mobile app became available Monday and is free.

“Consumers have already bought these computers,” said David Anderson, a Berkeley researcher who directed BOINC. “They’re paying for the electricity; they’re paying for the maintenance. We’re creating a framework where scientists can get access to (that computing power).”

In 2002, BOINC researchers thought to tap the power of idle PC processors and offered the capacity to researchers for free. According to Anderson, BOINC has already harnessed computing power roughly equivalent to that of the largest supercomputer in the world, which is worth more than $100 million.

Anderson said that today’s mobile devices are catching up to desktops and estimated that they are already 20 percent as powerful as the average desktop.

“The power of mobile devices … has increased by a huge factor in the last couple of years — to the point where the power of your phone, even though it’s really small, has a good percentage of the processing power of a big desktop computer,” Anderson said.

The app runs only when the mobile device is plugged in and connected to a Wi-Fi network, avoiding possible risks like overdrawing the battery or slowing the system. It includes a simple user interface that shows the user what projects the app is working on and is available on both the Google Play store and on the Amazon app store.

BOINC’s mobile platform has already been used by research groups like the Scripps Research Institute. There are currently six projects that use BOINC’s mobile app, with 20 or more expected in the next few weeks.

The mobile platform was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Lisa-Joy Zgorski, a spokesperson for the NSF, said that BOINC was an easy way for individuals to contribute to important research at next to no cost to them.

Because BOINC runs behind the scenes on mobile devices, many potential users raised concerns about privacy. BOINC, however, uses complex encryption coding and allows users to download and inspect the app’s code for malware or other security threats.

“Whoever is in control here has a lot of power,” said UC Berkeley fourth-year molecular and cell biology major Salil Babbar. “I want to know about security protocols, who could have access to what I’m looking at.”

Contact Simon Greenhill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @simondgreenhill.