Computers, like human brains, typically operate at only a small percentage of their capacity; they often sit idle as a processor waits for data. But what if, instead of idling away their down time, computers could be turned into powerful research tools operating around the clock?
In 2004, IBM asked this question and answered it by joining forces with leading science, education and philanthropic organizations to create one of the largest public humanitarian grids in existence. Enabled by IBM technology, World Community Grid ® is powered by a volunteer force of more than half a million people in 80 countries around the world who have donated the idle processing power of more than one million computers to create a “virtual supercomputer” devoted solely to humanitarian research.
This innovative application of grid technology extends the idea of collaboration to include anyone with a PC and an Internet connection. Research shows that computer users only use 10% to 15% of the processing power on their computers. On the grid, the idle time of hundreds—even thousands—of computers can be harnessed by any organization needing a massive infusion of processing power. Grid computing joins together individual, physical computers, creating a large system that distributes computing resources to solve problems.
In 2003, it took scientists less than six months to identify 45 potential treatments to fight smallpox using grid computing. Without the grid, the work would have taken years to complete. Based on the success of the smallpox study, in November 2004, World Community Grid was established with IBM donating the server hardware, software, technical services and expertise to make the program’s infrastructure run.
Volunteers can take part by registering online and installing a free software program or “agent” onto their computer. The agent runs in the background and makes available a computer’s resources only when the machine would otherwise be idle–for example, when the user is sitting and thinking while the computer is running. When idle, a computer requests data on a specific project from the World Community Grid server. It then performs computations on this data, sending the results back to the server, and asking the server for a new piece of work. Each computation that a computer performs provides scientists with critical information that accelerates the pace of research. Grid computing aggregates the power of individual computers to create a system with computational strength far in excess of most of the world’s largest supercomputers. IBM works with public and not-for-profit organizations to make World Community Grid available to solve massive computational problems, performing hundreds of experiments simultaneously.
Within two years of its launch, computers running World Community Grid projects had completed more than the equivalent of 60,000 years of computing time to help address some of the world’s most difficult health and societal problems.
In 2005, AIDS researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California were able to generate new drug leads to combat the growing strains of drug-resistant HIV through the massive computational power of World Community Grid. The project performed more than two quadrillion computations within six months—work that would have taken decades in a conventional laboratory, or 300 years on a single PC. Scientists are now proceeding with laboratory work to develop the new drugs.
Similarly, World Community Grid has been helping scientists study the underlying mechanisms of cancer in order to speed and improve treatment and therapy for cancer patients. Researchers used World Community Grid’s combined resources to analyze large numbers of cancer tissue microarrays simultaneously, allowing multiple experiments to be conducted in shorter periods of time, improving the understanding of cancer biology. The speed and sophistication of the computing grid made it possible to detect and track subtle changes not apparent with human inspection or traditional analysis alone.
In 2008, IBM began a program that used computing to develop stronger strains of rice, and produce crops with larger and more nutritious yields. And in September 2010, IBM launched a China-based initiative aimed at finding ways to filter and clean polluted water, and turn saltwater into drinking water for less money. A World Community Grid advisory board continues to look for other potential research projects that would benefit from grid technology.
By 2011, a total of 18 projects were up and running or had been completed as part of World Community Grid. In just six years, the project provided research scientists with more than 400,000 years of computer run-time at no cost, and delivered more than 620 million research results.
In 2009, IBM was awarded the Coffey International Award for World Community Grid and “its application of technical expertise in innovative ways to address the greatest societal challenges of our time.” And the World Community Grid program is a powerful example of IBM’s smarter planet vision in which different systems—from utility grids to healthcare—can be made to work better as a result of increased data, interconnected networks and greater embedded intelligence. It also illustrates how the collective “wisdom of crowds” can accelerate progressive change for the world.