The Internet has changed the concept of the supercomputer: No longer a monolithic machine tucked away in a university or government lab, it can now comprise a network of ordinary computers working together on a single project. Distributed.net serves as the clearinghouse for information on such “distributed computing” efforts. The site seeks to promote this practice by developing client software and a network of users. The software, available for most major platforms, analyzes data when the client computer would otherwise be idle.
Distributed.net has sponsored several contests to break encryption codes, including the 56-bit Data Encryption Standard (DES) used by the federal government. In the most recent attempt, Distributed.net users teamed up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to break a DES-encrypted message in less than 24 hours. A contest now under way seeks to crack the stronger 64-bit RC5 protocol. The nearly 200,000 users of Distributed.net can ally themselves with one of over 7,000 teams, competing to analyze the most data and eventually crack the code. Another project in the works will search for members of a class of numbers known as Optimum Golumb Rulers, which have applications ranging from radio astronomy to X-ray crystallography. You don’t need a continuous Net connection to contribute your computer to these communal quests, just as long as you log on every day or so.