Microsoft Launches Azure Prime Challenge

The new distributed computing project aims to find ‘lost’ prime numbers

Microsoft has launched an online initiative that allows anyone to take part in the hunt for ‘hidden’ prime numbers.

The Microsoft Azure Prime Challenge invites businesses, educational organisations and enthusiastic individuals to donate their computing resources in order to discover useful numbers that were left behind in the race to find the largest prime.

Notable applications for these numbers include cryptography, a field made especially popular after Edward Snowden revealed some of the surveillance practices used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) earlier this year.

“The biggest prime number ever discovered is 17 million decimal digits long. Previously, the biggest prime number was 12 million digits long. It’s a lot of digits, but there is also a big gap between those two. Potentially there are a lot of “lost primes” waiting to be discovered,” said Steve Plank, Cloud Computing and STEM evangelist at Microsoft.

Plenty of non-profit organisations rely on distributed computing to run similar calculation-intensive projects, including Folding@home, which uses idle processing resources donated by thousands of volunteers to determine the mechanisms of protein folding.


Prime numbers are defined as those that have no factors besides one and themselves. They have countless mathematical applications, including cryptography. However, for a long while, the focus of the scientific community was on finding the largest prime number – currently 17 million digits long. Meanwhile, the rest of the useful prime numbers were left behind.

defotobergTo join the Prime Challenge, interested parties have to visit the website and follow the instructions. They will then be able to endlessly run the algorithm known as the Sieve of Eratosthenes, which was invented to look for prime numbers way back in the third century BC.

Participation in the project is free, and it even features online leaderboards for the most competitive of prime-hunters.

“The identification of new prime numbers is increasingly challenging, but possible for anyone. Forty per cent of the numbers between one and ten are prime but, as we progress up the number line, they taper off and become sparser. But in reality, as we get much further up the number line nobody really knows as nobody has ever searched for them all,” explained Plank.

“In order to map large prime numbers of hundreds of digits powerful technology, which can quickly sift through and crunch numbers, is required,” he added.

To assist with the search, all participants can subscribe to a free Microsoft Windows Azure trial giving them up to $200 of free access to create and run virtual machines.

Last week, it emerged that Microsoft was thinking about encrypting all of its traffic to protect the privacy of its users, following the examples set by Google and Yahoo.

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