Sysadmins are so annoyed by distributed computing apps that Sophos has created a new tool to block the programs.

A survey of admins by the company found that applications such as [email protected], BBC Climate Change Experiment, and the World Community Grid were rated by 89 percent of those polled as worthy of blocking. This was marginally ahead of Instant messaging (IM), peer-to-peer (P2P) and voice-over-IP (VoIP) software, more traditional bugbears of the admin community.

From today, customers of Sophos’s Application Control extension to its anti-virus client will be able to spot and stop these applications on any PC running the protection. The upgrade is free of charge and can be tailored to allow or block specific distributed applications as deemed necessary.

Distributed applications such as [email protected] are a class of software designed to perform useful, often scientific tasks, during quiet periods when a PC is switched on but doing no other work. They often activate with the screensaver. The majority are based on Boinc (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), a technology originating from the development of [email protected] and run on an open source basis by the University of California, Berkeley.

Other examples of the Boinc genre include worthies such as [email protected] (a project to find Neutron stars), a number of climate prediction systems, and mathematical modelling projects such as PrimeGrid, to name only a few.

The downside of running such apps is that they have to send and receive chunks of data, which can in theory affect bandwidth, and interfere with other supported applications on business PCs. Admins are also under pressure to lock down applications that send unauthorised data out of the network, no matter how innocently.

"IT staff simply don't want their PCs being used in the hunt for small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri," said Graham Cluley, borrowing a sardonic quip from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. "It’s an intensely cool technology, but poor businesses aren’t so sure," he said.

[email protected], which sits on millions of computers, has in the past been the target of exploits. In 2003, the program was found to be vulnerable to a buffer overflow that could allow an attacker to take control of the system.