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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 08:16 GMT
PCs do thousands of years of work
By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter

Computers in a library
Grids let ordinary desktops play a big role in helping humankind
A global network of computer users has clocked up more than 4,000 years' worth of computer calculations in under three months as part of a huge grid project.

Since November, thousands have joined the World Community Grid (WCG) which uses idle computer time to help solve serious health and social problems.

Over 4,000 "teams" have been running a simple program which processes proteins for the Institute of Systems Biology.

The Seattle-based institute is working out the role of proteins in bodies.

The calculations completed so far by the thousands of ordinary desktop computers mean that the WCG has done 22% of the total analysis needed for the institute's Human Proteome Folding Project.

"It makes me feel great because it is easy to sit back and let it run," Graham Hood, a community administrator for the 63-member My Online Team, told the BBC News website.

"I can't think of a better way to put spare time into good use," added the watchmaker based in Birmingham.

By the time the project ends it is predicted that more than 20,000 years of computing will have been done.

Technical trouble-shooter

As well as being a keen "protein cruncher", Mr Hood has also filled the role of technical trouble-shooter for those in the WCG community who fear viruses - not the biological kind.

Participants only need to know how to install the software - no other expertise is required to be part of the effort.

But that means some who take part may not necessarily be so savvy about technology and computer security either, which could cause problems.

The software required to take part in the WCG is small, simple, and does its calculations without users realising it.

If you took 10,000 people and said it is costing you this amount a week to run your computer, would you prepared to donate that money to charity or put this program on the computer and it costs you nothing?
Graham Hood, My Online Team
Small, encrypted files of protein data are automatically downloaded via a secure server when users connect to the net.

With the current concern over spyware and viruses, WCG members have needed to ensure they remain secure online, but configure their systems to let the right kind of encrypted data in and out.

Spyware are programs that surreptitiously install themselves on computers to gather information about users. They can slow computer processors and clog systems.

"If you have a PC at home, it is more simple," said Mr Hood.

"But if you are in corporation and you want to put 40 computers on the grid, due to the fact that networks have to be so secure, firewalls will block information getting back to the grid.

"People have to get past the firewall in a safe manner."

On the community's forums, advice is given out readily.

The project is also a way of contributing to a good cause that avoids scam "charity e-mail" phishing attempts - e-mails which pretend to be from legitimate charities.

This kind of scam recently hit tsunami relief fund-raising efforts.

"If you took 10,000 people and said it is costing you this amount a week to run your computer, would you prepared to donate that money to charity or put this program on the computer and it costs you nothing?"

Of course, a resource like cash is always a welcome relief for charities too, but at least computers which get more powerful year on year can do something useful, too.

Premier processing league

The teams and individuals also earn points for the processing and calculations each has done.

Those with the most points, worked out and balanced against the specification of the computer and net connections speeds, are ranked in a league.

The "Premiership" tends to comprise those who might have more than one processor linked up to the WCG.

"One person from Hollywood has a render farm with 30 processors in it. So he is doing in one day what I have done in three months," explained Mr Hood.

Graphic representation of a protein
The first WCG project is trying to unveil the secrets of proteins
But Mr Hood and his team have crawled steadily up the rankings to be the 13th most prolific team, contributing more than 300 computers to the endeavour.

Earning processing points and having rankings gives people something to aim for, aside from the greater humanitarian goals, according to Mr Hood.

Each protein has to be analysed five separate times to be sure of results.

The hope is that a better understanding of the roles certain proteins have will lead to the development of cures or better treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV/Aids, and malaria.

Protein analyses can take years to complete on powerful supercomputers alone.

A global network of desktop computing power doing the analysing means that time can be reduced to a matter of months.

The WCG project, backed by IBM, is similar to others, like the successful Seti@home run by the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life project which examined radio signals for signs of alien communication.

Another, the Smallpox Research Grid, linked together more than two million volunteers from 226 countries to speed-up analysis of 35 million drug molecules in the search for a treatment.

The subjects of study for the WCG teams are chosen by an international advisory board of experts specialising in health sciences and technology.

The board evaluates proposals from leading research, public, and not-for-profit organisations, and aims to be involved in up to six projects a year.

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