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iSGTW Feature - Volunteer computing goes East

Feature - Volunteer computing goes East


Image courtesy of Asia@home.

The year 2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the launch of SETI@home, a program that uses spare capacity on ordinary PCs and laptops to analyze data from radiotelescopes in search of elusive signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI@home was downloaded by millions and launched a wave of science projects that rely on volunteer computing.  In April, a workshop in Taipei and a seminar in Beijing, both under the banner of Asia@Home, aim to raise awareness among scientists in Asia of the huge – and so far largely unexploited – potential of such volunteer computing for science projects in their region.

Inspired by the success of SETI@home, over 50 volunteer computing projects now use an open source software platform called BOINC, devised by the director of SETI@Home, David Anderson of the University of California at Berkeley. These projects include everything from LHC@home for simulating beam dynamics of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to MalariaControl.net for modeling the epidemiology of malaria in Africa.

Plenty more volunteers out there. Image courtesy sxc.hu  

To the East

Practically all of these projects have been initiated in Europe and North America, and most of the volunteers are there, too. Yet the number of Internet users in Asia is exploding. For example, around 300 million Chinese are now connected to the Net, more than the number of Americans. So using volunteer computing for science in Asia seems like a huge opportunity. To realize that potential, though, Asian scientists need to learn how to set up a volunteer computing project themselves. This is the objective of the Asia@Home workshop at Academia Sinica in Taipei on 16-17 April, and the seminar on 20 April at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing.

Simon Lin, head of Academia Sinica Grid Computing (ASGC), took the initiative to organize the workshop because, as he says, “Asia is a significant player in grid computing, and there are many synergies between grids, clouds and volunteer networks that we need to learn to exploit.” The workshop is a satellite event to the International Symposium on Grid Computing that ASGC is organizing 21-23 April. Dr. Lin is particularly enthusiastic about the new wave of “volunteer thinking” projects, where people actively help analyze data, such as visually categorizing images or digitally annotating old documents, a trend which will also be covered at the workshop.

“Computing is an increasingly expensive part of cutting-edge science,” says Gang Chen, Head of the Computing Center at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, who is hosting the Asia@Home seminar. “Getting volunteers to help with some of the computing demands of big science projects in Asia could be a practical solution, and also help to get young people interested in science.”

Francois Grey for iSGTW

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