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To: Ms. Baby Boomer who wrote (509)6/14/2001 3:19:40 PM
From: Ms. Baby Boomer  Respond to of 510
Supercomputers: From Clunker to Cancer Fighter

By Lou Hirsh and Bob Francis,

Thursday June 14 01:25 PM EDT

Instead of spending its downtime gathering dust, that aging home or business PC could actually be earning its keep -- or even be making a contribution to society. It could be helping to find life in outer space, or a cure for cancer.

• Forget Electrons - Computing Goes Light-Speed
• Tech Titans To Build 'Supercomputer on a Chip'
• Free ISP Subscribers To Create Virtual Supercomputer

Companies and philanthropic organizations are increasingly using the concept of distributed computing to link thousands of PCs together, forming virtual "supercomputers" that perform gargantuan calculations, usually for scientific and health research.

One benefit is a much less expensive alternative to on-site systems that otherwise would be needed to perform the time-consuming data crunching. While the idea has yet to make anybody rich, it's been a boon for causes that don't have the mega-cash to invest in hardware.

The most famous distributed "supercomputer" now in use is the SETI@Home project at the University of California in Berkeley. Since 1999, the project has linked together more than 3 million PCs in what amounts to more than 680,000 years worth of computer-processing time, in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Intel Chips In

But there are a growing number of down-to-Earth uses for the concept. A month into a cancer-fighting project sponsored by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC - news), more than 430,000 people have signed up, and organizers are still recruiting additional volunteers.

"The goal is to get 6 million volunteers," said Katie Desmond, a spokeswoman for the project, dubbed the Intel Philanthropic Peer-to-Peer Program. The project lets individuals download an application that applies their PC's unused processing power in the search for cancer cures and new drugs to fight the disease.

The initiative will focus initially on research into drugs to block four key proteins that promote human cancers, including childhood leukemia. Volunteers' computers will screen through a library of 100 million compounds, calculating whether any of them are likely to bind to the proteins. The calculations will also predict whether the compounds could be readily absorbed by cells.

Those compounds that pass the initial computer-simulated screening will go on to actual testing in a lab. Scientists believe the initiative could accelerate the development of new drugs by up to five years.

The project was conceived by Dr. Sujuan Ba, director of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, and Dr. Graham Richards of Oxford University.

For help, they recruited Intel and United Devices, a software company in Austin, Texas, as well as the American Cancer Society (news - web sites). David Anderson, chief technology officer at United Devices, is director of the SETI@Home project and was one of its architects during a stint at UC Berkeley.

More Volunteers Needed

Despite recruiting enough volunteers for 100 million hours or processing time, researchers estimate they will need about 6 million volunteers to be successful. With that many people, the group says it will have the collective processing power of a 50-terraflop supercomputer. One terraflop equals a trillion floating-point computations per second.

To participate in the project, users need to download the 1.8MB client software from the Research for a Cure Web site. The program places an icon in the system tray at the lower right of the screen and loads automatically each time the computer reboots.

Users can set the application to run in the background or only as a screen saver, but either way the program does not interfere with other computer activities.

Other projects in which users can donate unused processing cycles to charity include those run by Entropia, a distributed-processing company in San Diego, and Folding@home, a protein research project run by Stanford University.

Business and Science Mix

Another ambitious project was launched in February by Internet service provider Juno Online Services (Nasdaq: JWEB - news), which recently announced a merger with NetZero to become United Online, the second-largest ISP after AOL.

As with other distributed-computing efforts, Juno users download a program from the company Web site to take part. Juno says that if all of its 4 million active subscribers participate, it would theoretically form the world's fastest supercomputer, measured in instructions per second, and might approach or break the "petahertz barrier" -- an effective processor speed of 1 billion megahertz.

Last Month, Juno announced an agreement with LaunchCyte LLC, a pioneering bioinformatics incubator, in which LaunchCyte and its portfolio companies will make use of the Juno Virtual Supercomputer for research. Bioinformatics employs massive computer databases to help scientists decipher genetic information that could help in the quest to prolong and enhance life.

LaunchCyte, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., expects to help start more than two dozen bioinformatics companies over the next seven years, many focusing on development of information tools for biotechnology and genetics research, which involve time-intensive computations.

"Although the bioinformatics market is still in its infancy, it is already highly competitive," said LaunchCyte CEO Thomas Petzinger. "Anything that speeds up the development process has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage."

Bottom-Line Benefits

Juno's project is not only aimed at furthering science, but could also become a business model for acquiring and leasing PC processing time to companies -- and eventually making a profit. Prior to the merger with NetZero, a Juno spokesman said the supercomputer project could provide a long-term source of revenue for the struggling free-ISP service.

"We definitely see a potential market for distributed computing, and are hoping that our Juno Virtual Supercomputing Project has the potential to attract customers and generate significant revenue," Gary Baker told NewsFactor Network, adding companies in the long run could be attracted by the cost savings over traditional on-site computer systems.

"Large amounts of money are already being spent on supercomputing -- companies are spending tens of millions of dollars on individual traditional supercomputer installations," Baker said.

Steven Asherman, president of Base One International Corp. (BOI), which specializes in distributed-computing systems for businesses, told NewsFactor that some major corporations have tens of thousands of PCs sitting idle at night. Those PCs could be put to use for processes like complex financial forecasting, as well as aviation and power plant design calculations that otherwise require supercomputers.

"Deutsche Bank uses our software for routine processing [and] generation of client statements that otherwise would be done by more expensive mainframe systems," Asherman said.

Obstacles Ahead

Asherman noted, however, that there are still issues to be worked out before business embraces the distributed-computing concept on a wide scale. To address security concerns, for example, his New York-based company and others have set up customized systems "to prevent PCs from doing anything they are not supposed to do," although experts agree that shared computing is generally safe.

Paying for computing space may eventually become an issue. In a tight economy, companies are not anxious to spend money for extra capacity they may not use, although some of the philanthropic efforts, like United Devices', use cash prizes as donation incentives.

Not all problems in business are amenable to the shared-computing approach. And like the private sector, said Asherman, personal motivation and convenience will ultimately decide the degree to which the virtual supercomputer becomes a real part of life in the business world.

"If PCs are distributed everywhere and are only available when idle -- by the definition of that PC's user -- then there must be a motivating system in place for users to make their PCs available," he said