This past fall saw the worst Ebola outbreak ever ravage western Africa, and while medical researchers are trying to find a drug to treat or prevent the disease, the process is long and complicated. That’s because you don’t just snap your fingers and produce a drug with a virus like Ebola. What’s needed is a massive amount of trial and error to find chemical compounds that can bind with the proteins in the virus and inhibit replication. In labs, it can take years or decades. Thanks to thousands of strangers, Ebola researchers are getting the help and computing power they need to shave off the time needed to find new drugs by a few years. Distributed computing is not a new concept, but as it is constituted today, it’s an idea born of the Internet. Contributors download a small app that runs in the background and uses spare PC compute cycles to perform a certain process. When you are running a PC and using it for Word, Outlook and browsing, you are using a pittance of the compute power in a modern CPU, maybe 5% total, and that’s only in bursts. Distributed computing programs use the other 95%, or less if you specify, and if you need more compute power for work, the computing clients dial back their work and let you have the CPU power you need. If you leave the PC on when not using it, the application goes full out. Employees leave their computers on when they go home at night. The client PCs tell the servers their computing capabilities and the servers decide which computers get what kinds of workloads. Faster computers get the higher priority in doing the next task, said Robert Tjon, vice president of engineering and developer of the grid. So it could be that your idle PC may one day save your life.
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