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Donate your PC's spare time to help the world

Grid computing project seeks to harness unused PC power

If you want to help save lives and the world in general – and do it in your downtime – then read on.

IBM and officials from some of the world's leading science, education and philanthropic organisations have launched a global grid computing project aimed at harnessing unused global computing power to help solve a variety of health issues and other scientific problems.

In an announcement, IBM said the World Community Grid project calls on home and corporate PC users to install a 1.5MB software program that allows their unused computer cycles to work on critical scientific research. The software is available from the project's website and works on computers running Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP.

The new grid will be used for medical research to help unlock genetic codes that could help find cures for AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer's disease and cancer, according to the group. It will also be used to conduct research to improve the forecasting of natural disasters and find new ways to protect the world's food and water supplies.

The idea is not new. It's been used in the past for other cancer research and is similar to the SETI@home project – the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which lets participants download a program that allows their PCs to look for radio signals in outer space in a quest to find intelligent life in other parts of the galaxy.

The first project to be tackled by the World Community Grid is the Human Proteome Folding Project, which aims to identify the proteins that make up the Human Proteome, which could help lead to cures for diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. The proteome project is sponsored by the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, a nonprofit research institute dedicated to the study and application of systems biology.

Future projects to use the grid will be selected by a World Community Grid Advisory Board, which will evaluate proposals from leading research, public, and nonprofit organisations. Five to six projects a year are expected to use the grid, according to the group.

"World Community Grid will enable researchers around the globe to gather and analyse unprecedented quantities of data to help address important global issues, including public health issues," advisory board member Elaine Gallin said in a statement. Gallin, who is also the program director for medical research at the New York-based Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, said the grid project "promises to harness grid computer technology to address complex clinical research questions."

Other organisations represented on the grid's advisory board include the National Institutes of Health, the Markle Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, Oxford University, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme.
Ken King, vice president of grid computing at IBM, said the World Community Grid will showcase IBM's grid technologies, which the company donated to the project.

The effort uses Grid MP software from Austin-based United Devices and an assortment of IBM hardware, including an IBM eServer p630 server running IBM's AIX operating system, 12 IBM x345 Intel-based servers running Linux, and IBM Shark Enterprise Storage Server systems running DB2 database software and providing 3 terabytes of storage.

United Devices, a grid systems vendor, will link the idle power of participating PCs and laptops into its existing worldwide grid using its own software. IBM and United Devices earlier worked together to create the Smallpox Research Grid, which pulled together computers from more than 2m volunteers from 226 countries to speed the analysis of some 35m drug molecules in the search for a smallpox treatment.

King said the world grid went live on November 16 after a month of beta testing. "It's a very structured environment in terms of what applications and what kinds of research are going to be done on the grid," he said.

IBM has been promoting grid computing services for several years and hopes to use its experience as a "technology catalyst" to help showcase the technology, King said. Users who download the program won't be exposed to any additional security risks, he said, as long as they already follow security precautions on their systems.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT in Hayward, California, said the world grid project "qualifies as a 'good works' project that, if it succeeds, will probably have commercial benefits down the road”.

The new project has several strengths, he said, including the advisory group set up to oversee it and its goal of helping nonprofit groups with their research. If the project is successful, he said, it can ultimately become a success story for IBM's own grid technologies.


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