Charity Engine: The Even Cheaper Cloud Supercomputer?

When TalkinCloud wrote about Amazon EC2's impressive standing in the 2011 TOP500 list of supercomputers, a commenter representing the month-old Charity Engine left us a note that it provides high-performance computing for even less money by harnessing the power of the community. And better yet? Half the proceeds from Charity Engine go to, well, charity, which is why it's promoted as "the app which could save the world."

If you're familiar with longstanding volunteer community computing projects such as [email protected] or the World Community Grid projects, you have the right idea. Similarly based on Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), Charity Engine takes the combined downtime of any PC endpoint running the client and turns it into one giant computing cluster. According to the press release announcing its existence, Charity Engine has a thousand nodes online at any given time even in these early stages.

Unlike those other community compute projects, Charity Engine lets customers lease out that combined compute power at a rate of about one-tenth of Amazon EC2's estimated average of 2.7 cents per hour. Half of the monthly profits go to the partner charities (at time of writing, that includes ActionAid, Amnesty, CARE, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Practical Action, Sightsavers, War on Want and Water Aid), and half goes to one lucky volunteer.

That's right: Charity Engine promises that a full half of the money raised by its cloud platform could be yours, up to and including $1 million(!). The more processor time you devote to Charity Engine, the higher your chances to win. According to the press release, the startup expects to match every British pound spent on electricity usage to prize fund/charity fund generation at a rate of between 1:10 and 1:20.

Sounds good, right? But, of course, there is a catch: Right now, Charity Engine only has limited usefulness as a supercomputing platform. The Charity Engine team says it will help port existing applications to BOINC, but middleware is something currently lacking. That said, the Charity Engine grid is going to get distributed storage in a manner that sounds similar to Symform, and it's working with Steven Wolfram himself to get Mathematica running natively, which could potentially be a strong differentiator for some verticals.

I'm intrigued, I admit. Charity Engine is going to be conducting a Series A after already raising £200,000 ($310,040) in seed funding. BOINC founder Professor David Anderson of UC Berkeley is working on Charity Engine personally. And rather than keep any money for itself, Charity Engine owner-operator Worldwide Computer Company has decided to keep the volunteer grid as a non-profit.

Who knows? Enough interest and enough users signing on to try to hit that prize fund could make the platform into a serious high-performance computing contender for science and other industries. TalkinCloud will keep an eye on the startup, so stay tuned.

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