Leveraging the Volunteer Spirit

By By Derrick Harris, Editor, GRIDtoday

March 5, 2007

While there has been no shortage of distributed, volunteer-driven computing projects announced over the past few years, the most successful might very well be the IBM-funded World Community Grid, which celebrated its two-year anniversary in November.

One reason for the grid's success in a world full of competition for spare cycles might be the fact that, according to Robin Willner, vice president of global community initiatives at IBM, World Community Grid is the only option that runs multiple projects at one time. Right now, she noted, there are five projects running on the grid, and seven more are in the queue. Projects are selected by an advisory board consisting of representatives from the World Health Organization and the UN Development Program, as well as members of the biomedical, philanthropist and Grid computing communities, and those interested leveraging the World Community Grid's immense computing power can apply online at www.worldcommunitygrid.org. The goal, Willner added, is to have four or five projects running at all times.

Of course, with hardware being a universal language, one also could point to the initiative's global nature as the root of its popularity. “One of the great things is [our projects] are all over the world,” commented Willner. “We have a project (Genome Comparison) where our research partner is in Brazil, with Fiocruz in genomics, and the most recent one we launched (Help Cure Muscular Dystrophy) is with AFM, a leading muscular dystrophy organization in France.”

Other current projects include [email protected], Help Defeat Cancer and the seminal Human Proteome Folding project, which has entered its second phase and is showing promising results. In the first phase of the project, researchers were able to analyze many of the proteins in the human body, as well as some from other species. According to Willner, Phase 2 will focus, among other areas, on diseases, such as malaria, that are prime targets for the knowledge gained during the first phase. What's more, the first peer-reviewed scientific journal article based on the project is set to be published next month. To read more about Phase 1 of the Human Proteome Folding project, read this GRIDtoday interview with the project's lead researcher: www.gridtoday.com/04/1122/104297.html.

However, other projects on grid also are showing promise, with a prime example being [email protected] Announced in November 2005, the project was able to complete five years worth of work in six months, said Willner, and is moving along nicely. She acknowledges, though, that the work done by World Community Grid participants in churning processing all that data is far from finding a cure for AIDS — but it is a start. “There is a lot of research that goes between what happens on the grid and actually getting news drugs and treatments for AIDS, but we are moving through that process from hundreds of thousands of chemicals to 40 down to a handful that will go to the next stage.”

When it comes to what projects are on deck, biomedical research will continue its strong showing, with plans for more AIDS work and broader drug development research, but the advisory board is “particularly keen” on finding more environmental science projects. One already is on the agenda — a local climate modeling project with the University of Cape Town (South Africa) — but, said Willner, “If anyone is doing work around sustainable energy or carbon use, we'd be really interested in that.”

In the end, though, even the most noble of projects couldn't be carried out if there wasn't the computing power to pull it off. Which is where World Community Grid's ever-increasing membership comes in. The initiative currently boasts more than 265,000 individual participants and — even more importantly — more than 536,000 devices. And while Willner says she is “delighted” with the current membership numbers, which translate into around 1,000 years of computer runtime per week, she is eager to see them grow. “We can handle a lot more,” said Willner.

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