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Paradigm Shift@Home

I recently made a post on Bench Press about the potential for distributed computing (projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home which combine the computing power from volunteers over the internet to do supercomputer style calculations) to help any initiative needing extra number-crunching power, as well as steps that the scientific and distributed computing communities can take to help get us there, as well as what I think is a valuable paradigm shift in science that the distributed computing approach represents:

What impresses me the most about projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home is that they have defined some brilliant new ways to do science:

  • Use the internet – It’s a common theme on Bench Press, but with more and more people having faster and faster access to the internet, the potential for distributed computing becomes greater and greater. As Folding@Home demonstrated, such approaches can produce computing systems as powerful (or potentially more powerful) as leading supercomputer systems at a fraction of the cost.
  • Mobilize the public – We’ve discussed ways for the scientific community to reach out to the public like using social media and creating interactive applications/tools for the public to use, but efforts like Folding@Home illustrate a way to not only reach out to the public but to get them vested in science. In a world where high school science teachers find it difficult to get teens interested in science, initiatives like Folding@Home have created a system where teams of individuals compete on who can contribute the most to the effort! Instead of simply hoping that the public will continue to fund and listen, why not borrow a page from the many existing cancer-walk-a-thons and make it easy for the public to get involved?
  • Leverage new technology – It may not come as a surprise to our readers that a significant amount of the computational power at Folding@Home comes from graphics cards and Playstation 3’s. But, while many “mainstream” supercomputers ignored the new power afforded by these new chip types, Folding@Home developed software so that volunteers could quickly and easily use these powerful chips to boost their Folding@Home scores. The Folding@Home initiative also developed software to take advantage of innovations AMD and Intel included in their chips (new multi-core architectures and special instructions to speed up calculations). Is it any wonder, then, that Sony, NVIDIA, and AMD have all publically announced support for the initiative with their products?

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For more details on distributed computing and some of my thoughts on how the scientific community can better adopt these, check out the post at http://blog.benchside.com/2008/12/distribute-compute/

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