The World Community Grid

11 September 2011

Interview with

Joe Jasinski, IBM Research

The World Community Grid is a project to create the world's largest public computing network to help power scientific research and specifically, research that benefits human kind.  So work designing drugs or finding cures or treatments for disease.  The grid was launched in 2004 and it's operated by IBM.  To find out more about the project, Chris Smith spoke to Joe Jasinski, Director of Healthcare and Life Sciences Research at the company....

Joe -   The World Community Grid is a group of researchers and a group of ordinary citizens who have combined their efforts to build what is in fact in some sense, one of the world's largest supercomputers to solve problems that we believe are beneficial to mankind.  And so, what the grid is, anybody can join.  It's using your own PC or computers that you own to join a network of computers and those computers are used by the scientists who are doing projects with the World Community Grid to do computations that will otherwise be impossible for them to do because they don't have enough computing power. 

So the way it works is you go to and you can sign up your machine or machines and we download a screensaver to your machine, and when you're not using your computer, which is most of the time actually even if you had it on and you're sitting in front of it, we can do some computations that ultimately when they're done, we send the results back to a centralised computer which we call the head node. 

After we've done enough of these computations, we present the data to the principal investigators, the scientists who are exploring things on the World Community Grid, and they can then understand their problem and hopefully discover something new like a new drug to treat HIV/AIDS or for dengue fever, or maybe finding new kinds of plastic materials that would make cheap solar shells available.

Chris -   Sounds terrific.  How many computers or how many users you have signed up actually contributing to this initiative?

Joe -   So we have just over half a million members which could be individuals or could be institutions like schools or universities, and we have a total of about 1.8 million computers that are signed up by those members.  So the grid itself consists of about 1.8 million nodes, as we would call them or individual processors, that can be applied to these problems.

internet cafeChris -   So, on aggregate, how much computing time are you actually able to harness with the grid at any one moment?

Joe -   The problems run in background on your computer so it's only using background cycles, but if you assume a reasonable PC or other kind of machine, then we're certainly in the teraflop range.  So trillions of floating point operations per second or more.

Chris -   So does that make it probably one of the most powerful computing resources the planet currently has?

Joe -   It is one of the most powerful computers on the planet currently but it's only good at doing certain kinds of problems that are what are called embarrassingly parallel.  The entire problem has to run on each machine as opposed to a more traditional scientific supercomputer where one problem runs across thousands and thousands of processors on the same machine.

Chris -   In other words, there are certain problems which can be broken up into lots of little chunks and work very nicely in a parallel way, the way that you're doing it, but there are some problems that are actually a bit like a game of chess where if you do this, then this has to happen and then that needs to happen, and there are sequential problems which a supercomputer would be better at than your system.

Joe -   Yeah, that's the basic idea.  We don't actually break the problem up into chunks.  The kinds of experiments that we do are say, you want to test a bunch of different kinds of compounds that might be good drugs for fighting AIDS; suppose you have a thousand drug compounds that you want to test and you have a dozen proteins that you want to see if those drugs would stick to.  You need to do a bunch of calculations each time to figure out whether that's true or not.  

So suppose you had to do a very simple calculation which was: Does this molecule stick to this protein?  But in order to get the entire answer, you wanted to have to do that calculation a million times.  If you only had one computer and you had to do 1 million of those calculations and suppose the calculation only took a second, it would in fact take you about in excess of 10,000 years on your one computer to get all the computations done. 

On the other hand, if I had a million computers and I could run one individual computation on each of those million computers at the same time, it would take on the order of a second which is what the World Community Grid does.  It's not quite that fast, but instead of doing it in years, or months or thousands of years, we can do it in minutes or hours.

Chris -   So how does your project differ from say, the SETI@Home project or the initiative Fold it where people are trying to work out structures of proteins by downloading a screensaver and analysing a bit of a protein for example?

Joe -   From a technology perspective, it's the same kind of technology.  The distinction with the World Community Grid is it's a not for profit organisation and we don't focus on one particular problem.  So SETI@Home focuses on analysing signals from space, Fold it focuses on analysing protein folding and they're controlled by a single individual or single project. 

Red RibbonThe world community grid works by soliciting projects from investigators at universities or other not for profit organisations and if we believe that your computation can run effectively on the grid, and if we believe that the results of your project might in fact be beneficial to mankind, like we could discover a new drug for a forgotten disease or a new material that would help the environment, then we grant you time on the grid and you get to run for as long as it takes to finish your project.  So IBM actually provides what's called the 'head node' - the machine that controls all the other machines and we basically make it very easy for the principal investigator to get their problem onto the grid and then get their data back off the grid.

Chris -   So how many big projects are you looking at at any one time or considering and what's the waiting list to get onto the grid?

Joe -   Currently, we have 9 projects active and they're active at different phases.  The waiting list is actually pretty short.  So if any of the listeners out there are actually faculty or associated with research institutions, they're doing not for profit work, and you're interested in applying for time on the grid...  There are two kinds of people in this project - there are the scientists who apply for time on the grid to see if they can solve their problem and then there's anybody - scientists, any ordinary people who want to contribute their computing time - so basically, you can be either or both.

Chris -   And you were going to say, if there's anyone out there who wants to get involved, what should they actually do?  Who do you send your begging letter to?

Joe -   So you just go to and if you're a PI, there's a section on the web page that tells you how to apply for time.  If you want to donate time from your computer, there's a section that tells you how to download the screensaver.  You can form teams.  We have some institutions that form teams.  You could score points based on how many computations your team does.  You don't get any prizes for doing that but people get very interested in it and the other thing you get to do if you're a contributor of time is we have very nice write-ups of all these projects.  They're written in very simple terms so that almost anybody can understand them about what the scientist is trying to accomplish and how it works.  And if you want, you can pick of these projects for you machine to work on.

Chris -   And let's finish by hearing some of the success stories so far.  So what projects have you brought to fruition?  What have been the outcomes?

Joe -   The outcomes of most of these projects initially are publications in the scientific literature.  In our "Fight AIDS at home" project, we have the used the World Community Grid to discover, potentially, new kinds of AIDS drugs.  It will take many, many years of course to test whether those new compounds are in fact are useful for treating AIDS, but that's true of any kind of drug discovery process. 

We've also done some work with an investigator who's interested in finding cheap plastic materials to make cheap solar shells.  And again, using the World Community Grid to do a number of computations that were too big for the kind of computer he had available to him.  He's been able to test and discover some potentially exciting new materials.

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