Jo Stichbury

@fluffymaccoy

Putting your computer to work, but not yourself

September 25th 2018

Your computer and tablet sit unused for hours each day; find out how to make passive income by leasing out their idle time.

The bitcoin mining bonanza may be behind us, but it’s still possible to make money from your computer, tablet or smartphone when you’re not using it. This article explains how to cash in on the computer sharing economy by leasing your computer power, and also describes how to donate computer time to scientific research.

In recent years, there’s been a trend for students with some technical knowledge and a computer set-up to make an income by mining cryptocurrency in their dorm rooms.

Mining took off in 2010 and became a popular way to make money for limited effort. Initially the domain only of crypto hobbyists, it rapidly gained wider attention and attracted tech-savvy students living in college accommodation. With access to an unlimited supply of free electricity, those willing to learn the skills necessary to set up a rig and mine cryptocurrency could set about making a substantial side-income from the easeful office space of the bedroom.

But things have changed, and the money is no longer so easy to make. These days, mining is so competitive that it has become the preserve of a just a few industrial-sized companies. It is no longer profitable for a “dorm miner”, even operating within a “mining pool”, which is a kind of syndicate of individual miners. Take the example of bitcoin, now mined using specialised processors, known as ASICs, which are many thousands of times more powerful than a standard computer. They are also expensive, require huge amounts of power, and are not reusable for other computing tasks — and so not reusable in your average student’s gaming computer.

Other cryptocurrencies can still be mined using more standard hardware. The greater the processor power of the computer rig, the better your chances of a successful return on your efforts, but this pushes the hardware investment costs too high, alongside the electricity cost of running the processors and the fans needed to keep them cool. The setup costs offset most if not all of the profits that are achievable, then, and it’s an arms race to keep up with the hardware used by others mining in competition.

It’s not an encouraging scenario, but if you are thinking of giving cryptocurrency mining a go, check out a range of online mining calculator tools and thoroughly research the best currency and hardware setup for your circumstances.

While cryptocurrency mining is no longer profitable, computer leasing — enabled by the same blockchain technology — is starting to take off. It allows you to rent out your computer power in a sharing economy that’s built with a distributed network of computers. If you have previously mined cryptocurrencies, you will have a suitable setup. Even if you haven’t, if you are a student or average home gamer, the chances are that you have hardware with the potential to generate passive income in its idle time, and you are less likely to fall foul of college authorities or parents by pushing up the electricity bill. Your desktop or laptop, and even your tablet and smartphone, can be put to work, as long as you can keep them powered up and have a half-decent Internet connection. You will need to have some familiarity with cryptocurrency, because that’s how you’ll receive payment.

Golem

One of the most ambitious networks, Golem, has created a peer-to-peer sharing platform on the Ethereum blockchain, and has been likened to an ‘Airbnb for computers’. The Golem network allows those needing computing resources like storage, processing power, and bandwidth (“requestors”) to rent them from you as a “provider”.

The Golem network matches requestors and providers depending on the processing job and the hardware specification required. Golem splits the job into sub-tasks, coordinates the work, and returns the results as they become available to the requestor. As a provider, you are paid if the results pass verification tests, and you build up a reputation as your hardware completes each sub-task requested of it. Payment is in cryptocurrency, in the form of Golem Network Tokens (GNT), which you can withdraw or trade, requiring you to have some basic knowledge of the use of cryptocurrencies.

While the Golem network currently only supports CGI rendering, the goal is to provide rental of computation power for support for a range of processing tasks, such as those used by deep learning and other areas of data science and AI, where high-performance computing (HPC) is needed. Golem runs on Windows, Mac and Ubuntu operating systems and has an active community for help in getting up and running. You can find out (much) more about Golem from an excellent deep-dive article in this publication, by Pete Humiston from back in May this year:

iExec

iExec is another distributed computing platform that uses Ethereum to create a network for applications, data, and computing resources for scientific research, cryptography, 3D rendering, finance, and fog computing. The goal is to offer “a market network for applications, data, and computing resources, including HPC ones,” says Julien Béranger, the company’s Community Outreach Officer. As a provider — or a “worker”, as they are known — you can lease out your machine to compute tasks and receive payments in the RLC cryptocurrency. You can use Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems with iExec, which started offering its workerdrop pool (a public pool of worker computers) in July this year. You can find out more about iExec from an article by Noam Levenson in this publication last year.

SONM and GridCoin

SONM also allows you to profit from renting out your computer hardware. The kind of tasks SONM “suppliers” will power include rendering, machine learning, web hosting and crunching complex scientific calculations. Payment is in the form of SNM cryptotokens. At present, suppliers must use, and be familiar with, the Linux operating system.

Finally, we turn to GridCoin, which is an open source blockchain that distributes the GRC cryptocurrency based on the amount of processing power your hardware provides to help scientific research. Gridcoin is altruistic at heart, and aims to help research in the sciences, particularly in astronomy, maths and in biological problem solving, such as determining protein structures.

Edit — 28th September 2018 — Following publication, I received a comment on reddit that GridCoin is the only one of those projects that is a blockchain (the others all use Ethereum) and is also the only one that isn’t a company.

Computer leasing: What you need to know

  • Golem, iExec, SONM and GridCoin are still developing their networks. There is likely to be financial advantage in being an early adopter, but you need to be prepared for changes as they mature their business models.
  • You must be willing to take payment in cryptocurrency, and it’s currently unclear how much you will earn.
  • While each company will be reassuring about privacy and the potential loss of hardware performance, you should be aware of the risks of installing this kind of software on your computer.
  • You will incur costs from extra electricity usage, and also consume Internet bandwidth, which may be billable.

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You can find more of my pieces in this publication, and over on DZone.

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