In 1997, when Cooper and the university first began searching for Mersenne primes, he only had four computers in the project.
"We didn't have a server so I had to watch each machine," he said. "I thought that four computers was about all I could handle. But as we got a server, and a lot of the work was automated and the software got better, we were able to add so many more computers. I really like the process of having a goal in mind and working for that goal. Every morning I wake up and check our machines and see how they're doing. I really just love the process."
To verify the new Mersenne prime number, it was independently tested using different programs running on different hardware, according to the GIMPS organization. One verification test, which lasted 3.6 days, used an Nvidia GPU, and another used an Intel Core i7 CPU and ran for 4.5 days.
Cooper discovered his first record-breaking prime number in 2005. He found the second in 2006.
Mathematicians at UCLA broke Cooper's record in 2008. That record Mersenne prime number held until Cooper and the University of Central Missouri reclaimed it with this latest discovery.
The GIMPS organization will award $3,000 to Cooper, who is donating the money to the university since it provided the computers for his project.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is email@example.com.
Read more about high performance computing in Computerworld's High Performance Computing Topic Center.
This story, "Mathematician: Finding 17M-digit prime number like climbing Everest" was originally published by Computerworld.