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What is Distributed Computing? - Principles, Environments & Applications

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  • 0:05 Computer Processing Power
  • 2:33 What Is Distributed Computing?
  • 5:32 Other Applications
  • 6:32 Parallel Computing
  • 7:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul has a PhD from the University of British Columbia and has taught Geographic Information Systems, statistics and computer programming for 15 years.

Some computing tasks require the power of multiple computers. Learn how distributed computing coordinates tasks performed on multiple computers at the same time.

Computer Processing Power

Computers have become more powerful over the years. More memory, faster processors and larger storage capacity make every new generation of computers better than the previous one. A regular consumer-grade computer you can buy at your local electronics store has computing power that far exceeds that of specialized research-grade computers from two decades ago.

And yet, computers are still not fast enough. Our modern society collects vast amounts of digital information, which require a lot more processing. The types of problems we are using computers for also have become more complex. We are no longer just using computers to add up numbers and type out reports.

So let's say you have a very demanding task to perform on a computer. You have developed some software to simulate the effectiveness of a new drug on limiting the growth of cancer cells at the molecular level. Complicated stuff, but you have a smart team of researchers and your model is looking very solid. You decide to do a test run. You load up the software and the data on the fastest computer in the research lab, and on Friday afternoon, you hit 'Run.'

You spend the weekend thinking about how exciting it will be to see your results. You come back to the office on Monday morning, and you run to the computer. The progress bar tells you that your calculation is 0.001% done. Your first model run will be completed around the time of your retirement party. And you actually want to test your model thousands of different times to examine different types of drugs!

So how do you increase the processing capacity of a computer? Computer manufacturers are continuously developing faster computer chips, but there are technical limits on how much faster one computer chip can be. Another approach is to - and you probably guessed it - use more than one computer at the same time. You can buy more computers, but that presents a problem. How are you going to use multiple computers to run your software?

What Is Distributed Computing?

What you need is a distributed computing system. A distributed system uses software to coordinate tasks that are performed on multiple computers simultaneously. The computers interact to achieve a common goal, and they interact by sending each other messages.

In the case of the software you developed, the actual calculations need to be broken up into separate elements that can be run on different computers. Some calculations may be entirely sequential, meaning that you can only go to step two after step one has been completed. However, some calculations may be able to run in parallel, meaning that you can break them up into elements, run them separately but at the same time, and then combine the results.

Distributed computing is used to solve complex computational problems that cannot be completed within a reasonable amount of time on a single computer. The time necessary to complete all the calculations is reduced by harnessing the power of multiple computers.

The example of the software you developed illustrates the biggest challenge in distributed computing. Not only do you need to come up with the calculations to solve the particular task at hand, you also need to be able to break it up into elements that can be run separately. Once you have been able to accomplish this, you also need special controller software that manages the resources of the various computers.

The computer unit running this software is also referred to as the 'master computer,' while the other units are called 'workers.' The controller software allocates tasks to individual computers and combines their results when the tasks are completed. Messages between computers are used to send requests and results back and forth and to check on the progress of task completion.

One of the major benefits of distributed computing is that the individual computers do not have to be all in the same place. In fact, you may not even have to own all the computers. Many computers sit around much of the day doing nothing.

What if individual computer users made their computer processing power available over the Internet when they are not using their computer? This is known as 'volunteer distributed computing.' The SETI@home project is one of the more famous examples of this approach. With over five million users and over two million years of aggregate computing time, it is recognized as the largest computation in history. Go distributed computing!

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