Folding@Home and how to cool your GPU semi-MacGyver style

MacGyver, the fan, keeps the GPU cool
This post is going to have a few of my photographs, but it is a departure from my normal photography posts. With the world having been turned upside down and most of us hunkering down in our homes, with limited outside adventures, it may seem there is little that you can do to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. However, aside from practicing social distancing, there is something you can do from home. You can donate your computer's unused CPU and GPU cycles to the Folding@Home Project.

If you would like to skip to the photographs, they are down at the bottom of this post.

What is Folding@Home?

Folding@Home (FAH) is a distributed computing network, like the SETI project. The project started at Stanford University, but is now managed out of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Once you download and install the FAH software on your computer it downloads data from the project to be processed on your system, and then sends the results back to the project. Unlike SETI, which was searching outer space, FAH aims to understand protein folding in the quest to better understand and treat the threats that effect our health.

My wife tried to describe protein folding to me, but my eyes glazed over a bit. At the core, what I know is that by donating my computers' resources, I'm fighting the good fight by helping scientists and doctors to better understand how illnesses like cancer, Parkinson's disease, and COVID-19 work, so that people can live another day. And, it's a fight that hopefully may lead to the world getting back to normal, sooner rather than later.

How powerful does a computer need to be?

I currently have it running on my three main computer systems, which vary greatly in their computing ability. The least powerful of my systems is an old Asus laptop that doesn't have a lot of CPU power; it's packed with a 1.8GHz Intel Core i3-3217U CPU. Since it is a laptop with limited cooling ability, I run the laptop on the Light Folding Power level, which gets it about 2,000 points day. But, a little is still better than none, as my friend has pointed out.

In comparison, my main system with an Intel i5-4590 (clocked at 3.3GHz with a turbo boost to 3.7GHz) and a MSI GTX 1050 graphics card averages about 130,000 to 150,000 points a day, while set to the Medium Folding Power level. The majority of the points earned on this computer come from utilizing my system's graphics card (GPU).

My third system, which is in the middle of the first two, averages about 12,000 to 14,000 points a day on medium power. It is powered by an Intel i3-4130 CPU, clocked at 3.4GHz. I have this system, as well as my main system, running on the Medium Folding Power level. The two i3 based systems are running Manjaro Linux, while the i5 system is running Windows 10.

Folding at home running on Manjaro Linux using an i3-4130 CPU
Folding@Home running on Manjaro Linux, using an Intel i3-4130 CPU.

The above screenshot from my middle-of-the-road computer system shows the FAH software running on Manjaro Linux. On Medium Folding Power, the CPU runs at a nice 58-64 degrees Celsius. That is not too bad in my opinion. The i3-4130 is a 2-core/4-thread CPU, so the operating system sees it as a 4-core CPU. You can see in the system process monitor window in the screenshot that on Medium Folding Power the FAH software is utilizing three of the four CPU threads. You can also see in the screenshot that this system isn't using a GPU. The GPU is an integrated one on the CPU and was not recognized by FAH.

You can also control the software via a Web interface. This is probably the easiest way to control the FAH software. Using the Web interface you can set it to only work during your computer's idle time. However, if you have your computer set to go to sleep, you will want to disable that feature while running FAH.

The only real catch with FAH is when it comes to GPUs. Many older GPUs are not supported, as they do not have the ability to process the data. But if you have a GPU from within the last few years, it should almost be guaranteed to work.

So, if you feel like contributing you can download Folding@Home's software from their site. They have installation packages for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. As mentioned above, you can set the program so that it only processes data while your computer is idle, via the Web interface at the URL localhost:7396 in your computer's browser. The software has three folding power levels, light, medium, and full. For laptops, I would stick with light. Beyond that and you will need good cooling capacity in your computer, which most laptops do not have. Using the light power level also disables using the computer's GPU.

Folding@Home's idle time

One final note. It is not unusual, especially with the massive amount of people throwing their computer resources into the pot and helping FAH, to see your system sit idle in the FAH control software. That is okay. Just let the software run, and when there is work to do, it will get assigned.

And finally, back to the photographs

Anyway, back to the photographic aspect of this post. A while back the fan on my MSI GTX 1050 graphics card died. For me, it actually did not make much difference as I only use the GPU for Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Camera RAW. When I use those programs, my GPU's temperature would only spike up to about 49C for very short periods of time, well within the safe zone of the card's maximum safe temperature. But, with folding, it is very intensive process. There is no spiking, there is only max GPU utilization until you either pause the FAH software, or the data is finished being processed. So, while I have ordered and am still waiting, at the time of this post,  for another fan to arrive for my graphics card, I went MacGyver style on it, and busted out the small desk fan my wife uses at work during the summer. The little fan keeps my GPU at a cool 60 degrees Celsius. And, yes, that is cool for a GPU card that is working at near maximum capacity. The max safe operating temperature of my card is 96 degrees Celsius.

A side view of the computer while MacGyver, the fan, helps to cool the GTX 1050.
A side view of the computer while MacGyver, the fan, helps to cool the GTX 1050.

Looking at the back of the computer case, while MacGyver helps to keep things cool.
Looking at the back of the computer case, while MacGyver helps to keep things cool.

The MSI GTX 1050 GPU sitting below the i5-4590.
The MSI GTX 1050 GPU sitting below the i5-4590.

And remember, please stay at (that's a bit of networking humor).


All images/photographs are copyrighted © by Tom Gatermann. All rights reserved.

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