November 12, 2007
Between keystrokes and without blinking an eye, you can help solve the world’s most important problems.
This is the message behind the World Community Grid, the distributed computing network created by IBM, which, since 2004, has been harnessing the power of volunteer computers to find cures for global health problems, understand climate change and discover the basic mechanisms of human health.
“The idea is to tap into this vast computing power and put it together with scientists’ big research ideas to help society and the world by dramatically speeding up their research,” said IBM master inventor and chief scientist for the World Community Grid Viktors Berstis.
Thanks to the World Community Grid’s 330,000 users, more than 120,000 years of computing time has been dedicated to solving grand challenge problems. The World Community Grid -- a massive virtual computer composed of 780,000 PCs and counting -- represents one of the largest philanthropic research projects ever attempted. The IBM Corp. is funding the project as a charitable program and has donated the hardware, software, technical services and expertise to build and maintain the infrastructure for the World Community Grid.
The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) recently announced its partnership with the World Community Grid and will assist the project by running World Community Grid software on its employee PCs, installing the client on the new Stampede cluster -- helping scientists scale their research for the World Community Grid -- and allowing other large TACC clusters to run grid computations when there are idle processors.
“TACC deploys world-class high performance computing systems and other advanced computing resources, but does not provide a massive distributed serial computing grid. Therefore, we are pleased to partner with the World Community Grid, one of the leading such projects in the world,” Jay Boisseau, director of TACC, said. “We look forward to working with IBM to explore how researchers can most effectively utilize both TACC advanced systems and the World Community Grid to address problems with deep impact to society as well as science.”
Volunteer computing (a type of “distributed” or “grid” computing) emerged in the 1990s as a way to solve complex problems computationally by connecting large numbers of volunteer PCs over the Internet. Drawing on the successes of SETI@Home -- a popular grid computing project begun in 1999 to help search the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life -- IBM’s World Community Grid focuses on more terrestrial aims, like drug discovery, climate predictions and bio-engineering.
With volunteer computing, large-scale computational problems are broken up into millions of small data packets and sent to individual participating computers. Home and business PCs, working while they sit idle, process and calculate these data packets and send the results back to a central system. There, the information is double-checked for accuracy and recombined to form a complex solution. This process differs from high performance computing, which processes data using a unified, massively parallel system.
One of the World Community Grid’s most recent projects, “Developing Dengue Drugs -- Together,” illustrates the potential of combining grid computing with high performance computing systems, or "supercomputing," to speed the discovery of small molecules for drug development. This method, called structure-based drug discovery, uses the power of supercomputers to determine which chemical compounds are the most likely to lead to drug discoveries, then uses grid computing to check the results.
Led by Dr. Stan Watowich and his research team at The University of Texas Medical Branch, “Developing Dengue Drugs – Together” aims to find compounds to combat the family of viral diseases called flaviviruses, which include Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus, Hepatitis C, and Yellow Fever. These diseases cause massive loss of life and resources throughout the world, with Dengue Fever infecting 50 to 100 million people each year and West Nile Virus spreading rapidly throughout the United States and Europe. Currently, there are no effective drugs to treat any of these diseases.
Flaviviruses are structurally and functionally similar and depend on a common enzyme, the NS3 protease, for viral replication. Knowing the shape and mechanism of this protease allowed Watowich’s research team to predict a method of disease disruption. But to test the three million potential drug molecules that could act as protease inhibitors was impossible given their on-site capacity.
“To do the drug discovery project in an accurate way would have required tens of thousands of years of computing time. So we talked with TACC and it became clear that a distributed computing approach would be very valuable,” Watowich said. “We decided to take advantage of what IBM had established and approached them about running our project on the World Community Grid.” Using the free resources of the World Community Grid, over 60,000 years worth of computing can be completed each year.
Watowich’s team used the Grid to do most of the computational heavy lifting, but performed pre- and post-processing, as well as algorithm and database testing, at TACC. “We’ve used TACC [systems] extensively for the initial development work, testing the programs on Lonestar and doing a lot of pre-processing to get the databases in the right format,” Watowich said.
In Phase 2 of the Dengue discovery program, TACC will serve as the “mothership” for preparing, storing and processing all World Community Grid calculations. With the combined resources of TACC and the World Community Grid, the future of this type of approach is essentially limitless, Watowich said. “Any disease, such as Alzheimer’s, influenza, or asthma, that has a protein target for the manifestation of the disease can be targeted with this approach.”
The World Community Grid has already helped researchers complete several studies, including a comparison of genomes and the development of tools for early cancer diagnostics. Presently, the Grid has four active projects through partnerships with non-profit, governmental, and academic institutions, searching for AIDS and Dengue drugs, and studying African climate change and human protein folding. The discoveries facilitated by the Grid are made available to the public to help the global research community.
Despite the World Community Grid’s achievements, there is still tremendous room for growth, according to Berstis. “One challenge is getting scientists to come up with really big projects to help the world and humanity,” Berstis said. “The other part of the challenge is getting the information out to all your friends and relatives and getting them to sign up.”
With the number of PCs in the world approaching one billion, the World Community Grid has untold potential, leading many researchers to believe the next big breakthrough might be achieved with the help of your home or work computer. “It’s doing something philanthropic without paying any money. How often can you do that?” Berstis said. “Everybody else asks for money, or time. Here’s something you can do to contribute to humanity and it’s effortless.”
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