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Measuring Folding@Home's performance impact


Can folding proteins slow you down?
— 12:00 AM on November 11, 2002

THERE ARE A FEW legitimate reasons not to run Stanford's Folding@Home client. You could be without an always-on Internet connection, or barely able to scrape together enough change to make your next utility bill payment. Heck, you may even think that searching for aliens is a better way to spend your spare CPU cycles, and that's your choice. However, some have raised questions about whether or not the Folding@Home client has an impact on overall system performance, something that could prevent individuals and especially businesses from running the client on their machines.

Of course, running the Folding@Home command line client isn't supposed to take away system resources from more important processes. The client itself is tagged with a low process priority when running in Windows, so just about any other system process should have first dibs on system resources. Folding@Home should only use CPU cycles your system would otherwise leave fallow, which means there should be no perceptible impact on performance when running the Folding client.

Despite that fact, some businesses may fear a loss of computational productivity, and gamers may want to avoid a potentially deadly drop in frame rates, just to be safe. Rather than simply trusting that Folding@Home doesn't impact system performance or assuming that running the client will slow things down, we've run the client through a gauntlet of tests to set the record straight, one way or another. Read on to find out just how much of an impact, if any, running Folding@Home will have on system performance.

Folding@What?
So what's this Folding@Home stuff all about? I've lifted a helpful little primer from TR's official Folding@Home team page:

Folding at Home is a distributed client computing effort by Stanford University intended to help understand how proteins assemble or "fold." Exactly how proteins assemble themselves is a mystery, and why the proteins sometimes fold improperly or "misfold" is also a mystery. Quite a few serious diseases are related to the misfolding of proteins, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, to name two. By donating your CPU's spare cycles, you are contributing to the effort to understand how the proteins fold, which is the first step to understanding how basic proteins work and how we might treat these diseases.
Our preferred method of running Folding@Home is to use the text-only command line version of the client, which can be run transparently as a service, using FireDaemon, for any Windows NT/2k/XP-based PC. Folding@Home can also be run on Apple's OS X and on Linux, but for the purposes of this article, I'll just be covering the Windows version of the client.

If you use Windows 9x, or if don't want to run Folding@Home as a service using FireDaemon, you can always run the text-only client manually. In fact, you can even copy a shortcut to the client into your Windows Startup folder so that it loads automatically each time you start Windows. Running the client as a service is a cleaner way to do things, because it will let you effectively hide the client from the hands of meddling users. The service will also automatically restart the client should it crash or shut down for whatever reason.

Now, let's get on with our testing.