2 to the 13,466,917th power minus 1

When most people leave their computers on for more than a month, they are rewarded with an increase in their Hydro bill. Michael Cameron got a world record.

The 20-year-old student from Owen Sound, Ont. made history this week by discovering the world’s largest known prime number with nothing more than a desktop and an Internet connection. Over the course of 42 days, his 800 MHz AMD T-Bird PC ran Prime95, a free downloadable software program written for the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS). Suddenly, a few beeps told him the machine had come up with a figure that that contains more than four million digits and would require about three weeks to write out by hand. Fortunately, it can be expressed in abbreviated form as 2 to the 13,466,917h power minus 1.

I’m not going to pretend to understand the complex mathematics that was involved here. Suffice it to say that prime numbers are an important part of creating better encryption tools, among other things. Cameron’s achievement — if that’s what you call sitting around while your computer does the work for you — was made possible through the help of about 210,000 other computers. It is a victory not merely for mathematics (and AMD, which will also certainly try to capitalize on the P.R. value of this story) but distributed computing, the best example of the Internet’s promise as a community tool.

Distributed computing is essentially a technique of spreading out computing tasks to large numbers of desktops through the Web. It is the forerunner to grid computing, which requires more advanced security and resource management capabilities. It’s a computing model best known for arcane projects like SETI@home, a screensaver program that processes radio telescope signals to search for extraterrestrial communications. GIMPS, on the other hand, was launched five years ago by George Woltman to discover new primes. The numbers are named after a monk, Marsenne, who made predictions that many of the brightest minds in math circles are trying to prove. Only 38 of these primes have been found in the last 2,000 years, but techniques like distributed computing promise to accelerate that progress.

The Internet has clearly become a popular communications medium because of the ease with which we can access vast amounts of data. But part of the appeal also stems from the ways in which it democratizes its users. A few years ago, for example, it seemed like such an effective delivery channel that almost anyone with a bright idea thought they could use it to become a dot-com millionaire. Open source computing, the most significant software movement in at least the last 10 years, turned Linux from an obscure Unix variant to an operating system that competes with Microsoft, simply because the Internet allowed almost anyone to play a part in is development. Distributed computing offers the same appeal, but it goes one better because you don’t actually have to do anything. As a passive participant, you live through your computer, benefiting from its contributions as part of the network.

While there has been considerable speculation about the prospects of distributed and grid computing in the corporate sector, we aren’t about to see a major revolution anytime soon. In biotechnology, firms like MDS Proteomics and Caprion prefer to make investments in supercomputers they can control themselves. Financial institutions are looking at distributed computing, but there are some obvious security risks about putting applications into such a public sphere. The Globus Project is working to create some standardization for grid computing, but it will take a while.

As distributed computing develops, the industry will face a number of complex and difficult challenges to extend the model beyond academia and online intellectual parlor games like GIMPS. In the meantime, this is the moment to enjoy the Web’s openness. We always knew computers were more productive than we are, but there are few vicarious pleasures in IT that come so effortlessly. If I were Michael Cameron, though, I’d give my PC a break. It deserves some downtime.

sschick@plesman.com

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