Category Archives: General

Is Folding@Home a Waste of Electricity?

Folding@home has brought together thousands of people (81 thousand active folders as of the time of this writing, as evidenced from Stanford’s One in a Million contributor drive.) This is awesome…tens of thousands of people teaming up to help researchers unravel the mysteries of terrible diseases.

But, there is a cost. If you are reading this blog, then you know the cost of scientific computing projects such as Folding@Home is environmental. In trying to save ourselves from the likes of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, we are running a piece of software that causes our computers to use more electricity. In the case of dedicated folding@home computers, this can be hundreds of watts of power consumed 24/7. It adds up to a lot of consumed power, that in the end exits your computer as heat (potentially driving up your air conditioning costs as well).

Folding on Graphics Card Thermal

FLIR Thermal Cam – Folding@Home on Graphics Card

If Stanford reaches their goal of 1 million active folders, then we have an order of magnitude more power consumption on our hands. Let’s do some quick math, assuming each folder contributes 200 watts continuous (low compared to the power draw of most dedicated Folding@home machines). In this case, we have 200 watts/computer * 24 hours/day * 365 days/year * 1,000,000 computers *1 kilowatt-hour/1000 watt-hours = 1,752,000,000 kilowatt-hours of power consumed in a year, in the name of Science!

That’s almost two billion kilowatt-hours, people.  It’s 1.75 terawatt-hours (TWh)! Using the EPA’s free converter can put that into perspective. Basically, this is like driving 279 thousand extra cars for a year, or burning 1.5 billion pounds of coal.  Yikes!

https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

F@H Energy Equivalence

Potential Folding@Home Environmental Impact

Is all this disease research really harming the planet? If it is, is it worth it? I don’t know. It depends on the outcome of the research, the potential benefit to humans, and the detriment to humans, animals, and the environment caused by that research. This opens up all sorts of what-if scenarios.

For example: what if Folding@Home does help find a future cure for many diseases, which results in extended life-spans. Then, the earth gets even more overpopulated than it is already. Wouldn’t the added environmental stresses negatively impact people’s health? Conversely, what if Folding@Home research results in a cure for a disease that allows a little girl or boy to grow to adulthood and become the inventor of some game-changing green technology?

It’s just not that easy to quantify.

Then, there is the topic of Folding@home vs. other distributed computing projects. Digital currency, for example. Bitcoin miners (and all the spinoffs) suck up a ton of power. Current estimates put Bitcoin alone at over 40 TWH a year.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/17/bitcoin-electricity-usage-huge-climate-cryptocurrency

That’s more power than some countries use, and twenty times more than my admittedly crude future Folding@home estimate. When you consider that the cryptocurrency product has only limited uses (many of which are on the darkweb for shady purposes), it perhaps helps cast Folding@home in a better light.

There is always room for improvement thought. That is the point of this entire blog. If we crazies are committed to turning our hard-earned dollars into “points”, we might as well do it in the most efficient way possible. And, while we’re at it, we should consider the environmental cost of our hobby and think of ways to offset it (that goes for the Bitcoin folks too).

I once ran across a rant on another online blog about how Folding@home is killing the planet. This was years ago, before the Rise of the Crypto. I wish I could find that now, but it seems to have been lost in the mists of time, long since indexed, ousted, and forgotten by the Google Search Crawler. In it, the author bemoaned over how F@H was murdering mother earth in the name of science. I recall thinking to myself, “hey, they’ve got a point”. And then I realized that I had already done a bunch of things to help combat the rising electric bill, and I bet most distributed computing participants have done some of these things too.

These things are covered elsewhere in this blog, and range from optimizing the computer doing the work to going after other non-folding@home related items to help offset the electrical and environmental cost. I started by switching to LED light-bulbs, then went to using space heaters instead of whole house heating methods in the winter. As I upgraded my Folding@home computer, I made it more energy efficient not just for F@H but for all tasks executed on that machine.

In the last two years, my wife and I bought a house, which gave us a whole other level of control over the situation. We had one of those state-subsidized energy audits done. They put in some insulation and air-sealed our attic, thus reducing our yearly heating costs. Eventually, we even decided to put solar panels on the roof and get an electric car (these last two weren’t because I felt guilty about running F@H, but because my wife and I are just into green technologies). We even use our Folding@home computer as a space heater in the winter, thus offsetting home heating oil use and negating any any environmental arguments against F@H in the winter months.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that distributed projects have an environmental cost. However, to claim that they are a waste of electricity or that they are killing the planet might be taking it too far. One has to ask if the cause is worth the environmental impact, and then figure out ways to lessen that impact (or in some cases get motivated to offset it completely. Solar powered folding farm, anyone?)

Solar Panel in Basement

LG 320 Solar Panel in my basement, awaiting roof install.

Where I’ve Been

So two years later and I’m finally posting.  Phew!  It was hard enough just finding time to write this.  The short of it is that life happened, and I just didn’t have the time to keep going with the blog.  Actually, I stopped folding as well, due to very high electricity costs in Connecticut (averaging about 18 cents per kWh, which is insane).

But now that our second child is a little less cranky, and now that we are out of that tiny apartment (we bought a house), I think I’m finally feeling settled enough to resume this blog.

Consider this a second kick-off.

As some of you have mentioned, the real computational power these days is in graphics cards. Actually, even when I was writing regularly two years ago, GPUs were the ticket to massive PPD and better efficiency.  The reason I wasn’t talking about them was because I felt it was important to start where F@H started and discuss CPUs.

Over the years I have folded on many graphics cards.  The list, as I recall it, goes as follows:

  • NVidia Geforce 8400 GS (PCI)
  • Nvidia Geforce 240 GT
  • AMD Radeon 3870
  • AMD Radeon 4870
  • AMD Radeon 5870
  • NVidia Geforce 460 GTX
  • AMD Radeon 7970 HD

You’re probably looking at this list and thinking, wow, those are some old GPU’s.  Well you’re right!  Originally I was going to write a blog post about each one of them, and include tuning info and lots of pictures.  Since I don’t have any of those GPUs anymore, with the exception of the 7970, that’s not going to happen.  Oh well…

The takeaway of all those articles though would have been this:  any of those GPUs (with the exception of the wimpy 8400) offered better performance and efficiency than the contemporary CPUs in the similar price range.  The higher end graphics cards (7970) offer significantly more points per day performance, and although power consumption is typically higher than a CPU-only folding rig, the performance  gains are exponential and efficiency is greater.  This is because the massively parallel architecture of today’s graphics cards offers tremendous floating point computational capability compared to central processors.

Going forward, I plan to take a look at new graphics cards (think 2017 vintage).  These cards generate anywhere from 100K PPD up to well over a million PPD.  But first I need to describe my new power meter, which will be the focus of the next post.

Second Intro

My Space Heaters in Winter!

My Space Heaters in Winter!

Welcome back to the fold!  After reading my first post, I realized that I did a terrible job at explaining what this blog is about.  So here’s a second attempt.

Folding at Home (F@H) is a distributed computing project hosted by Stanford University.  It’s basically computer charity, although it’s not an effort to save computers from viruses or from the Seven Slow Deaths of Obsolescence.  F@H uses your computer to turn electricity into scientific advancements that help people.

By running computer simulations for Stanford, we help researchers discover secrets about cancer and other diseases.  F@H is the largest distributed supercomputer in the world, with over 150 thousand active physical CPUs spread across the globe.  Many of the people who participate have a personal connection to the cause, such as a relative with Alzheimer’s, a Mad Cow, or cancer.  Others just wanted a unique way to give to charity.  No matter what the specific case is, F@H contributors often explain their reasoning as:

1.  I want to help people!

2. I am a huge geek!

For the typical contributor, the process is simple.  They download the uniprocessor client from Stanford, install it, and let it run it in the background on their computer during the day.  That’s great, however as with many things in life there is a downside.  If you have ever seriously researched Folding@Home, you might have come across a group of haters on the internet that bash the program for being an environmental disaster.  They say that Folding@Home is actually killing people & the planet at the same time.  With thousands upon thousands of computers eagerly juggling protein molecules, there are millions upon millions of watts being sucked out of wall outlets all over the world–outlets that connect back to power plants that burn fossil fuels and split atoms.  These people point out that even if your computer was going to be on anyway, the Folding application requires enough resources to keep it from ever going into a low-power idle state.  Thus, by striving to understand diseases, we may be dumping more junk into the environment that causes them in the first place.  And thus the dilemma: how can we fold to save lives without hurting the planet in which we live?  This brings me to the point of this blog: computational efficiency.   On these pages we will discuss how to contribute to F@H as efficiently and as cleanly as possible, as well as general environmental tips to help offset one’s F@H carbon footprint and ease that guilty conscience.  If you become a contributor who decides to implement the principles of this blog, you can defend your reasons along these lines:

1.  I want to help people

2.  I am the Overlord of Geeks.  Bow to me, geeklings!

3.  I love you, Earth!  Come here, let me give you a hug!  Or at least let me put away this big mallet I’ve been beating you with and replace it with a smaller tack hammer…

I expect this blog will ruffle some feathers.  If you are one of those people running the F@H uniprocessor client on your laptop 24/7, allow me to pause and glare at you through your monitor for a moment.  <glare> 😦 </glare>.  OK, done glaring.  First, thank you for supporting your fellow human beings.  Now, do yourself and your earth a favor and stop that F@H client right now!  I’m going to show you how to make a real difference in a way that won’t break the bank and won’t kill your puny laptop with excessive heat.  No longer will you settle for the 500, or even the 5000 Points Per Day (PPD) that you’re getting now.  We’re shooting for 100k PPD or more!  By not running F@H on old slow computers, making minimal use of the standard uniprocessor client, and finally building a dedicated F@H Rig, you can punch cancer in the face with a much bigger fist.  You’ll also cause less overall environmental impact for the amount of cancer curing being done.  Welcome to Green Folding@Home, home of  team Nuclear Wessels (Team ID 54345, the greenest Rigs in the fleet!).  I’m Chris (_QC_Paragon on the leader boards), and I’m going to show you the many ways to make a lean green Folding machine!

Me

-Chris

Green Folding@Home is Online

Icy Opteron 4184

Welcome to Green Folding

Hi everyone, and welcome to my blog.  I’m Chris, and if you haven’t guessed already, this is going to be blog about big fans :).  Well, big fans of F@H that is.  I’m assuming if you found your way here, you know what Folding@Home is.  If not, well, I’m not going to tell you what it is.  I’m too lazy for that.  But, if things go as planned, you will eventually figure it out by reading these posts.  Or, you could save yourself the mental anguish and just go read about this charitable venture at http://folding.stanford.edu/home/.   If it leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling, please sign up and help!  The feeling just gets better, until after eight years of contributing you just might want to start a blog about what you have learned.

First post done!  Yay + Yawn.  And I haven’t even really told you anything yet.  This is probably due to it being 4:53 in the morning, and I am positively loopy with excitement.  I promise there will be a more sane post tomorrow at some point.  Until then, FOLD ON!