“Move to the cloud!” is the clarion call to the world of information technology these days. We don’t have computers anymore, we have instances of compute services. We don’t have networks anymore, we have virtual private clouds. We don’t have hard disk drives anymore, we have storage objects. It’s all somewhat abstract, but very exciting. It is the latest and most powerful way to make good on the old Sun Microsystems slogan from the 1990s: “The Network is the Computer.” My employer, ExitCertified, delivers training for Amazon Web Services in North America. I teach AWS Security and AWS SysOps, and this certification reflects a big part of what I’m doing when I’m “on platform.”
On the edge of Washington-Dulles airport is an annex of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. I had occasion to spend an afternoon there, and was fascinated by the prominent exhibits. They have the “Enola Gay”, the prototype Boeing 707, a Concorde, an SR-71 Blackbird, and pride of place is the Space Shuttle “Discovery.” My brother reminded me that the space programme is something that makes the United States a great nation, in the direct sense of how it exceeds all all other nations. The superlatives for the Space Shuttle — and for Apollo — go on and on.
Computers played no small part in the space programme, and continue to do so, especially with the robotic exploration of the Solar System. This beauty is a UNIVAC 1232, which is the pinnacle of 1967 technology, and was used by the U.S. Air Force and by NASA for the Space Shuttle, up until 1990. The UNIVAC 1232 did real-time computation, and had the equivalent of 123 kilobytes of memory. I tip my hat to the space and computer pioneers who put us on the Moon and are taking us to asteroids and Solar System planets today.
Thanks to a friend who is the head of a certain top-level country domain in Europe, I am running a RIPE Atlas probe on my home network. RIPE is Réseaux IP Européens, which is French for European IP Networks. It is one of the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) that divide up administration of the world-wide Internet. Sometimes we call them the “geos,” for geographical organizing bodies. Atlas is RIPE’s plan to build the “largest Internet measurement network ever made.” See the RIPE Atlas web site for details.
My probe, pictured here, is a little bigger than a deck of playing cards. It is one of 7,446 connected, from around the world. Built-in measurements can figure out how long it takes to go from my spot in the network to any other spot, and the quality of that connection. This is all about aiding the performance of the Internet, without reference to commercial gain. This is the original purpose of the Internet — communicating data for its own sake — and I like being able to serve it in this small way.
Here is a feather in my cap, for having passed a pair of examinations testing my knowledge of software from one of my company’s key partners. I’ve long specialized in Veritas Storage Foundation and Veritas Cluster Server, but my certifications were out of date. “Put up or shut up” is how the saying goes, and now I can seek my fame and fortune as a Symantec Certified Professional.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home is a distributed computing project hosted by the University of California at Berkeley. Its purpose is to see if there is any meaningful signal being sent by an intelligent civilisation beyond the Earth and the Solar System, that is detectable by our radio telescopes. SETI@home takes signals gathered by radio telescopes at Arecibo in Puerto Rico and other places, and sends small portions for analysis to many computers run by volunteers all around the world.
I run the SETI@home program on my computers, and have been “crunching SETI units” for more than a decade. SETI@home uses the Internet as if it was one, giant super-computer, and I think the exhaustive analysis of radio signals that it undertakes is an ideal problem of distributed computation, to which the Internet is particularly well-suited. I am also fascinated by the core question, which is whether or not intelligent and communicating life forms have evolved anywhere other than on the Earth.
We now know that there are planets outside the Solar System, and that there are many of them. It is early days yet, but already exoplanet researchers have found more than 600 planets orbiting stars other than our own. NASA’s Kepler probe is dedicated to finding habitable planets, and I am already analysing signals from Kepler candidate star systems with the SETI@home client program on my computers.
I have participated in the SETI@home project since 22 July 1999, and have contributed 3,431,175 Cobblestones of computation (2.96 quintillion floating-point operations) to SETI@home’s search for extraterrestrial life. An earlier version of the project had “classic” work units, and I crunched 22,220 of those using 347,137 hours of CPU time. Of the 2,334,151 people in the world who participate in distributed computing projects (of which SETI@home is the biggest), I am in the top 1 percent.
SETI@home is what the Internet should be all about. It is people freely donating spare CPU cycles on their networked computers, who in so doing are advancing scientific knowledge and possibly leading to a discovery that will be of monumental importance to humankind.
The SETI@home project web site is here. Participation is easy, doesn’t cost you anything, and doesn’t pay you anything. SETI@home allows you to do more than passively observe the progress of scientific discovery, and its engagement of amateurs with experts is the sort of thing that human beings should be doing in an advanced civilisation. I want to know if we are the only beings in the universe possessed of a directed and active curiosity, or if there is indeed anyone else “out there.”