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iSGTW Feature - Grids meet aliens and androids

Grids meet aliens and androids

“To boldly go where no man has gone before . . . ” 

Image courtesy of Patrick Wormsley,

A Pangalactic Workshop on BOINC is the sort of place you might expect to meet people in Star Trek suits.

In fact, at the fourth edition of this workshop, held at the INRIA institute in Grenoble 10-12 September, the talk was not about space travel, but about volunteer computing. (“Pangalactic” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to SETI@home, or Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. It harnesses personal computers to sift through radio wave data from outer space—the most visible of volunteer computing projects since it was launched in 1999.)

SETI@home spawned BOINC, the Berkeley Open Interface for Network Computing, which is now used as a general-purpose platform for volunteer computing by over 50 projects, running on about a million volunteer computers, with an aggregate processing power of over 1 petaflop as of  January. While SETI@home remains popular, the workshop showcased many other projects, and was a chance for project developers and distributed-computing experts to discuss new directions for
volunteer computing.

One of the most promising directions is the convergence of volunteer and grid computing. For example, Einstein@home uses volunteer computers to analyze date from gravitational wave detectors, and it now runs over 10% of its analysis Germany’s D-Grid, using BOINC to distribute the work. (See previous iSGTW story, Hello, Einstein residence … Why yes, he’s home!)

The EC-funded EDgES project is developing a general-purpose bridge between BOINC and EGEE that allows jobs to flow both ways. This should enable networks of desktop machines in institutes—where BOINC can easily be installed—to collaborate with the clusters in data centers that are the traditional workhorses of service grids like EGEE.

There was also much talk about virtualization. Virtual machines, such as VMware, are being used to ease the porting of new scientific software—normally developed for specific Linux environments—to BOINC. In this way, the software can easily be run on Windows and Mac environments favored by most volunteers.

Mobile phones could do volunteer computing as well.

Image courtesy of BOINC

BOINC on the go

Even more ambitious options for BOINC were discussed at the pangalactic workshop.

Oded Ben-Dov of Technion in Haifa, Israel, described a heroic effort to translate BOINC's C code into Java, so it can run on Google's open-source Android operating system for mobile phones. He said that this is not as strange as it might first seem—the number of mobile phones in the world greatly exceeds the number of laptops, and the processors in high-end phones are already far more powerful than what desktop computers could achieve when BOINC was launched in 2003.

BOINC's director, David Anderson, introduced two new general-purpose platforms for volunteer science at the workshop: Bossa and BOLT. Bossa provides a simple means to distribute scientific analysis tasks to people on the internet. Such ‘volunteer thinking’ is an approach that has been popularized by initiatives like Startdust@home, which invites volunteers to search for tracks of cosmic dust in microscopic images of material returned from outer space by a satellite. BOLT is a framework for developing the material needed to train volunteers to do new tasks—key to the success of volunteer thinking projects.

Volunteer thinking vastly increases the range of what volunteers on the internet can contribute to science. For example, one project being developed by Ana Gago Da Silva of the UNOSAT group at CERN, aims to recruit volunteers to help analyze satellite maps for United Nations relief operations, and in the longer term track the effects of global warming by analyzing changes in archived satellite data.

Focusing on the problems of just one planet might seem a bit parochial for a pangalactic workshop, but the participants agreed that the combined power of volunteer computing and thinking was huge—and still largely untapped.
Slides and videos of the entire workshop, including tutorials, will be available through the BOINC workshop website.

—Francois Grey, for iSGTW

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