Monday, December 07, 2009

SETI@home in spotlight following IT chief's job loss

SETI@home in spotlight following IT chief's job loss

Serves as reminder of how to properly partake in volunteer computing projects
By Alpha Doggs


UPDATE: On Dec. 3, Neisluchowski issued a statement denying misuse of or theft of school computers.

Reports this week out of Arizona about how a public school district IT chief lost his job have put the use of volunteer grid computing efforts in the spotlight.

According to the Arizona Republic and other news reports, Brad Niesluchowski lost his job earlier this fall as network systems administrator at Arizona's Higley Unified School District following an investigation into suspicious activity that included running the SETI@home distributed computing program across 5,000-plus school computers. The school district alleges that running the program on computers around the clock for nearly 10 years has cost it more than $1 million in energy and other costs, and interfered with teaching by messing up other programs, such as SMART board systems. In fact, Niesluchowski (or "NEZ") had gained a reputation as a sort of god among SETI@home users for his status as its most active user as documented via a public credit system.

The situation has generated strong opinions from many corners, with some upset by comments by school superintendent Denise Birdwell ("We support educational research and we would have supported cancer research but we however as an educational institutional do not support the search of ET.") that are seen as flip and showing a lack of understanding of how SETI@home really works. A Fox News report out of Las Vegas includes an interview with Niesluchowski's wife, who says use of the software was authorized by a previous administration. Others pointed out that Niesluchowski losing his job stemmed from much more than just his use of SETI@home.

On top of all this, a police investigation is ongoing and involves allegations of possible stolen computers and gear, according to the Republic.

One issue the Niesluchowski affair immediately brought to my mind has to do with the proper use of volunteer computing programs, which allow end users to donate the spare processing power on their computers via one of the dozens of ongoing volunteer computing projects, many based on open source software called BOINC.

In compiling a package of stories on volunteer computing this past summer, I asked David Anderson, a research scientist at UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory who founded the BOINC project in 2002, about guidelines for using such software. His response: "The BOINC project's advice is to get permission from whoever owns the machine."

I circled back with Anderson today in light of the Niesluchowski situation, asking about whether it might harm SETI@home. His response: "I don't think S@h gets a black eye. Our policies explicitly forbid this."

He said it looks like "NEZ" got obsessed with SETI@home credit and made "some major errors in judgment."

On the plus side, Anderson said that SETI@home being in the news reminds the world that the project - which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year -- is still going.

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