Computer downtime rising up to work on world's problems
(San Antonio Express-News (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Feb. 10--AUSTIN -- People donating their spare computing power to the World Community Grid are helping to find solutions to some of the world's most vexing problems, such as discovering new drugs to combat AIDS.
More than a quarter of a million PCs worldwide have joined the nonprofit network, letting researchers crunch data faster and more cheaply.
"The World Community Grid takes research projects that were unimaginable by researchers before and makes them possible," said Viktors Berstis, 57, a master inventor at IBM who has led development of the philanthropic project, which his company sponsors.
The grid encourages people, businesses and other organizations around the world with PCs to download software enabling them to donate computer downtime to researchers to solve problems that require supercomputing power.
Organizations partnering with the World Community Grid in donating their idle computing time include Coastal Federal Credit Union, based in Raleigh, N.C., the United Way, the Semiconductor Industry Association and the University of Kentucky.
Grid computing involves linking large numbers of computers together to harness their collective power to solve complex problems. Most grid projects focus on drug development, but other industries ranging from financial services to manufacturing have begun using grid computing in their businesses, according to United Devices, an Austin-based company that created the software behind the project.
The first World Community Grid project, the Human Proteome Folding Project, was launched in November 2004. Researchers created a database that describes the structure of about 120,000 protein domains, spanning 90 complete genomes, that could not be described using traditional approaches.
The database could ultimately help scientists find cures to diseases such as cancer and malaria.
"If the World Community Grid didn't exist, I would probably be doing this for E. coli and tuberculosis and just a few other pathogens," said Richard Bonneau, assistant professor of biology and computer science at New York University and the principal investigator on the Human Proteome Folding Project.
Bonneau and researchers at the Institute for Systems Biology, where the project took place, estimate that it would have taken 100 years to crunch the data to outline the protein structures using only the supercomputers at its center.
"What the grid has allowed me to do is make this more widely accessible," Bonneau said. "In the end, the World Community Grid will have enabled the adoption of a new technology by the biomedical community that is important. If I didn't have the grid, I would have to buy as large a computer as I or my institution could afford." A supercomputer can cost tens of millions of dollars initially and half a million dollars a year or more to operate, Bonneau said. Instead of spending money on computing power, the researchers are able to spend money on advancing the science and solving complex problems, he said.
The latest World Community Grid project is focused on developing better treatments for those infected with HIV in the face of its evolving drug resistance. It's called the FightAIDS@Home project. The Olson Laboratory project at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is heading the study.
The project lets researchers run millions of computations to test chemical compounds against proteins found in HIV to find what compounds prevent it from reproducing, said Dr. William Lindstrom, research associate in professor Art Olson's laboratory at the Scripps institute.
"The World Community Grid has allowed us to ask questions we really wouldn't have been able to ask without it," Lindstrom said.
The donation of computer time also means a lot to researchers, he said. "For us, it's really nice to feel like people are participating in our research." Future projects could focus on climate change, pandemic outbreaks, natural disaster predictions and more. The system can tackle all kinds of things impossible today for researchers who don't have access to supercomputing systems, said IBM's Berstis.
As of last week, more than 263,000 PCs in 157 countries are running the World Community Grid. That computation power makes the grid one of the top five supercomputers in the world, Berstis said.
Berstis, who has been with IBM for 28 years, has received 105 patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and has 100 more pending. Last year he received 15 patents, and he has several patents and patents pending on grid computing.
"You often are annoyed by something," Berstis said. "You have an annoyance. You think of it as an opportunity. Once in a while something pops up in the back of your head as a solution." Berstis started inventing at age 4, when he made crystal radios. He said he has been making electronic "doodads" and studying chemistry, physics and math for years.
"You never know where the latest idea might come from," he said. "You think about the ridiculous and then fix all the problems. You sort of get an idea about what makes sense." The World Community Grid made sense to Berstis.
"Grid computing is bringing a new level of computing power to bear," he said.