You’ve probably heard of the World Community Grid (worldcommunitygrid.org) in the news and vaguely recall their mission. The site and its software have been around for several yearsâˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨â€šÃ„Ã¹since 2003 in fact.
Launched by research scientists and the technology firm United Devices, the technology managed to find 44 potential cures for smallpox in just a few months. Joined by IBM, the site and its evolving software have become an institution, using the technology to find AIDS medications, help cancer research, and much more. Currently, one of the projects is to compute the most efficient way to grow high-yield rice in various parts of the world.
The entire process is based on grid computing: using several computers in concert, to solve computational problems. The idea has been around almost since the inception of the computer itself, but the self-contained network is too costly (and slow) for meaningful results in many cases. Grid computing can take a problem that a supercomputer would take years to complete and get it done in a matter of months or even weeks.
World Community Grid is a voluntary program that people join and donate their unused computer time to. It’s not only voluntary, but it’s world-wide and anyone can help. By installing a small piece of software on a computer and occasionally being connected to the Internet (always-on is not required), anytime that computer is idle, the software uses the idle time to perform computations. By combining the pieces from thousands of these computations, large problems can be solved.
It’s called grid computing because of the way the data is processed. Imagine a huge piece of information written out on a page in a language you don’t understand. To translate it, you can go one-by-one through the words and convert them to English, but this would take days or months to complete. If, instead, you place each word into a cell on a big grid and then assign a person to translate each cell, several of you working together could translate the entire document in hours.
That’s how the World Community Grid works to solve really big problems.