We Want You!

By Team Digit | Published 01 Nov 2006 11:22 IST
We Want You!
We Want You!
This time, we're here to tell you about how you can help society, without even lifting a finger!

Too many of us have the habit of leaving our computers unattended and unused for a while-sometimes for a few minutes, and at times, for hours (that's where all the screensavers come in!). And many of us-especially those of us in offices-have the privilege of an always-on Internet connection. Instead of shutting down and then rebooting, how about assigning your computer's idle time to a productive purpose-like aiding a cancer research?

From Years To Months
In scientific research, huge amounts of processing power-measured in gigaflops, teraflops and even petaflops-are required to perform long and complex calculations in the areas of human protein folding, cryptographic ciphers, and such. These computational tasks are typically performed using supercomputers or other highly powerful computer systems.

Some research projects, such as those trying to find cures for diseases such as AIDS and cancer, can take quite a few years to complete, depending upon the computation they require: they tend not to have a specified time to completion. But a solution has evolved to cut down on that time. That solution is called  Distributed Computing.

In distributed computing projects, people contribute their idle computer processing cycles using a middleware platform for the projects open for public participation. Middleware refers to the software that performs the function of agents that use the CPU cycles on the computer processing the data, and sends the results back to the server.

The Paradigm
Distributed computing goes back a long way, actually. It began in 1970 with the emergence of two developments: on the one hand, minicomputers, workstations, and then personal computers; and on the other, computer networks, including, eventually, the Internet. The first Internet-based distributed computing project was started by the DEC System Research Center at Palo Alto, California. The project sent tasks to volunteers via e-mail, who would run these programs in their computers' idle time, then send the results back to DEC-and then get a new task. The DEC System Research Center was taken over by Compaq in 1998 and was merged with the HP SRC Classic lab.

The Distributed.net project, started in 1997, actually made use of the Internet to distribute data for calculation and collect the results. They used independently-owned computers, and allowed the users to download programs that would utilise the idle time of the CPUs. The project was focused on breaking real-world cryptographic ciphers.
The SETI@home (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence at home) project was initiated in May 1999, hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. This was the project that really popularised the concept of distributed computing, and you've probably heard of it. SETI@home searches for evidence of extra-terrestrial radio signal transmissions and analyses any such they find.
Non-profit organisations, universities, and even commercial organisations such as United Devices, Intel, IBM, Sun, and Microsoft are actively participating in scientific research. These are focused on designing distributed computing processes using open and scalable platforms on Internet-connected systems.
How It Works
So what we're talking about here is, you can help by "becoming part of a grid," donating the idle time of your computer. If you would like to help, there are a number of projects by the Berkeley Open Infrastructure of Network Computing (BOINC), Stanford University, World Community Grid, the National Foundation for Cancer Research, The Rothberg Institute for childhood diseases, and others.

The majority of the software clients for the purposes of these distributed computing projects are available for the Windows, Mac, and Linux/FreeBSD/Unix platforms. An application needs to be installed on the volunteer's computer, which will act as an agent and use that computer's CPU power when the computer is idle and connected to the Internet. After you download and install this software, they return the identification details of your system to the host computer server.

You'll then need to choose the projects you want to participate in, through this common software, for example, that of BOINC. As a result, when you're registered with a project, a screensaver runs when the computer is idle; the software works on calculations in the background, and sends back the calculated results. Note that calculation is done only during idle time, so there's no interference with your regular work.

The Efforts Thus Far
Many projects are currently underway in various fields. Let's take a look at some of these.

BOINC-based Projects
BOINC is a distributed computing infrastructure that was developed after the success of SETI@home. BOINC serves as a software platform by which one can register for a number of distributed computing projects. Participation in multiple projects is possible through a single BOINC software.

BOINC was developed by a team based at the University of California at Berkeley, led by David Anderson, who works there as a research scientist. It is supported by the US National Science Foundation through awards for their research and development.

A number of projects come under the BOINC umbrella. These are in the fields of extra-terrestrial intelligence, climate changes, chemistry, nanotechnology, cryptography, mathematics, and the life sciences. Here are some scientific research projects ongoing at BOINC. The current BOINC program version is 5.4.9, which is what you'll need to install. For more details, head to http:// boinc.bakerlab.org.

Folding@home: This project, run by Stanford University, is a project where accurate simulations of protein folding and unfolding enable the scientific community to better understand the development of many diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, BSE (mad cow disease), cancer, Huntington's Disease, cystic fibrosis, and other aggregation-related diseases.

Sony announced the Folding@home client for the PlayStation 3, which will contribute to medical research by utilising the idle time of the PS3's Cell processor. Recently, Stanford University announced the release of software that will utilise the processing power of ATI X1900 graphics processing units from ATI Technologies, and that will help them bring down the research period of Folding@home from three years to just a month.

Climateprediction.net: Under this project, the climate is being monitored so as to forecast climatic changes. The BBC Climate Change Experiment and Seasonal Attribution Project, which helps determine extreme weather events (cyclones, snowfalls, and the like) that could cause an impact on human activity, are also part of the project.

Rosetta@home: This one aims at solving the protein prediction problems run by the Baker Lab at the University of Washington. The ultimate goals of this project are the accurate prediction of human proteins that consist of amino acids, and the design of the protein structures that will help in the development of cures for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, malaria, and many others. The project has been successful thus far in accurate protein prediction.
Similar Ventures
World Community Grid: The WCG is run and funded by IBM to create the world's largest computing grid, and uses the idle time of volunteering Internet-connected computers. Currently, the WCG is undertaking research projects such as Help Defeat Cancer, FightAIDS@home, and Human Proteome Folding.

Drug Design and Optimisation Lab: This lab helps in evaluating potential drugs that will work against deadly diseases such as anthrax, smallpox, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, SARS, malaria, botulism, plague, and avian flu, which have affected many people in the recent past: several developing countries have had to take corrective steps against diseases such as SARS, anthrax, and avian flu. Africa, India, Korea, Indonesia, and many other regions urgently need to find a cure for infectious diseases such as avian flu.

The project is sponsored by a non-profit organisation called The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases, based in Connecticut, USA.

National Foundation For Cancer Research
The Screensaver-Lifesaver Project at the NFCR Center for Computational Drug Discovery at Oxford University is a unique program to rapidly screen billions of molecules, each with the possibility of becoming a drug that cures cancer. The project partners are the NFCR, University of Oxford, United Devices Inc., Intel, and Microsoft.

This is a grid computing platform and test bed that runs distributed computing projects such as the United Devices Cancer Research Project, which looks for potential candidate drugs for the treatment of cancer.

India is in 46th position amongst 236 countries, in terms of participation in such projects, according to the statistics available at BOINCstats.com. Our country is rapidly growing in the IT sphere and has the potential to contribute much more.

Jargon Buster

Gigaflops, Teraflops, Petaflops: FLOPS is an acronym for Floating Point Operations per Second. These are used as a measure of a computer's performance, especially while performing scientific calculations which make heavy use of floating-point calculations.
Aggregation-related diseases: Diseases caused due to clustering or amassing together of independent but similar particles, parts or bodies. For example, Alzheimer's disease is caused by development of abnormal tissues and protein deposits over thin surfaces consisting of nerve cell bodies.

Protein Prediction: A process of accurate prediction and design of protein structure and protein complexes.

Proteome Folding:  The determination of the shape that certain proteins will take, and what kind of structure they will form, is called proteome folding. Proteome refers to the collection of all human proteins.
Protein Folding: A process by which proteins that consists of amino acids in the human body coil into a three-dimensional shape to perform their biological
Make A Difference!
The world, as you know all too well, faces problems relating to diseases, the environment, climate, and other things. All countries except possibly the most poverty-stricken are trying their best to research and find solutions.

To do your bit, you don't have to take out banners and roam the streets; nor will you need to accost people for donations. All you have to do is participate in any of the projects mentioned above, and any others you may come along when browsing the sites!

Participation in non-profit scientific research projects is one workable way ahead for humanitarian welfare. It doesn't require your presence, and won't cost you anything more than  a slightly larger electricity bill-which you pay anyway by leaving your computer idle. This is, of course, assuming your Internet connection is always on.

We're hoping that after having read this article, you'll participate in one of the above projects-to make this world a better place!

Companies, too, can take a conscious decision to donate CPU time of company computers, and consider the increased electric bill as their contribution to charity... nay, humanity!

Team Digit
Team Digit

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