Sep 21 2014
Igor Jurisica wants you to help him conquer cancer.
Oh, don’t worry, the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre scientist is not looking for money.
But he would like to borrow your computer.
In the age of molecular medicine, with its staggering genetic complexity, much cutting-edge cancer research has become a game of brute computational number crunching.
And with access to laboratory supercomputers scarce and expensive, Jurisica has turned to a massive network of home and business PCs to run his research algorithms.
“It’s basically a network of workstations around the globe,” says Jurisica, a computational biologist at the hospital and a University of Toronto professor.
“When you’re not using your machine (it) can be donated for the project.”
Known as the World Community Grid, the IBM-run network has gathered some 676,000 businesses and individuals globally who have volunteered about 2.9 million computers of varying capacities to help run scientific studies.
Some 13,000 Canadian volunteers are currently donating time on about 67,000 devices.
Begun last November, Jurisica’s Mapping Cancer Markers project has been granted access to about one-third of the machines worldwide, which gives him some 258 computer processing unit (CPU) years worth of power to run his data each day.
Igor Jurisica is using global network of computers to discover more precise cancer treatments. Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star
That means a typical computer would have to run continuously for 258 years to process the data the network can work through in 24 hours.
In aggregate, the full grid can generate more than 400 CPU years each day, which would rank it among the world’s 15 largest supercomputers, said Viktors Berstis, the senior IBM software engineer who runs the network.
“When you have these big data problems, you have big processing problems to go with them,” Berstis said.
“And so these kinds of projects that take many tens of thousands of years of CPU time are so massive that only the biggest supercomputers can handle them.”
Again the problem, Berstis said, is that an institution with a supercomputer must typically divvy up access to it among hundreds or thousands of competing researchers.
“So no one researcher gets that supercomputer 24/7 for several years on end which is the equivalent of what we’re giving (them),” he said.
“They are getting something extremely rare and they are getting it for free.”
The grid, which is eager for more volunteers, is run through a Toronto-based central processor that accesses home and business computers when the donors are not using them, Berstis said.
It’s available for downloading to anyone who has a computer or Android device running Windows, Mac or Linux systems by going to the grid site and clicking the join link.
That downloads a program to the home or business computer which will run in the device’s background at the lowest priority, Berstis said.
“The instant your computer has nothing else left to do for you, then it can work a piece of this big research problem,” he said.
“We try to make this software very unobtrusive so it doesn’t bother anything else.”
Volunteers can donate their unused capacity in a number of ways, even allowing project computing to be done in the microseconds between key strokes.
Member machines contact the central Toronto processor when they’re ready for work and are sent a tiny portion of a project problem.
The worked information is then sent back to the server where it is checked for accuracy and cobbled together with all the other incoming data.
Berstis said the grid code has been scoured line by line by IBM programmers for potential security problems and is likely to be the safest piece of software on any machine.
He said the network also boasts environmental benefits.
“When you have a supercomputer centre you have to have an air conditioning system that is almost as powerful as the computer to cool it back down so that the building doesn’t melt,” he said.
The IBM grid is similar to one used by the earlier SETI — or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — project, which linked millions of home computers to help scan the heavens for alien signals.
Grid volunteers can also download screensavers that relate to the science project — there are currently three — that their computers are helping to crunch.
Jurisica’s cancer marker project is the largest of these and is looking to discover the genetic and molecular signatures of lung, prostate, ovarian and sarcoma cancers — a search of stupefying complexity.
When the Human Genome Project released its map of our species’ DNA more than a decade ago, it opened the door to the possibility of personalized medicine, where an individual’s cancer or heart disease could be diagnosed and treated according to its specific genetic signatures.
Unfortunately, the genome project also opened a Pandora’s box of complexity in medicine with the realization that any single gene could be run or influenced by a mesmerizing array of other genetic materials and their protein products.
And an individual’s complex cancer signatures, for example, would determine whether their disease could be detected early or would respond to given therapies.
Jurisica said, however, that one cancer biopsy may now generate some 40,000 potentially involved variables. That means finding a set of signatures for any particular cancer — and there may be dozens across the patient population — could be a daunting exercise.
In its search for such signatures — or markers — the Princess Margaret project has so far used up more than 81,000 CPU years of computation.
Berstis said IBM began building the service a decade ago as one of its “Good Citizen’s Projects” and that researchers are selected on the scientific value of their proposals.
[Correct certain inaccuracies: First, SETI@home is still running. Second, no mention was made that all of WCG runs on BOINC software from the Space Science Lab at U.C. Berkeley. Most important, long past is the day when WCG ran only when a computer was idle or took last position in what was running. All of that was true when BOINC and WCG were much younger and home computers had little of today's power. While you can calibrate down how much CPU and memory are used, there is little need to with quad core and hyper threaded dual-core processors. Just know that the BOINC process develops a great deal of heat which must be dissipated.]
See the full article here.
“World Community Grid (WCG) brings people together from across the globe to create the largest non-profit computing grid benefiting humanity. It does this by pooling surplus computer processing power. We believe that innovation combined with visionary scientific research and large-scale volunteerism can help make the planet smarter. Our success depends on like-minded individuals – like you.”
“Download and install secure, free software that captures your computer’s spare power when it is on, but idle. You will then be a World Community Grid volunteer. It’s that simple!” You can download the software at either WCG or BOINC.
Please visit the project pages-
World Community Grid is a social initiative of IBM Corporation
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