Decryptathon rallies 75,000 PCs

French scientists harnessed the power of 10 million computing hours by hooking up 75,000 PCs across the Internet. Their work may help find a cure for muscular dystrophy

The first French initiative to harness shared computing power for scientific research has been a roaring success, according to its organisers, and a second event is to be organised next year.

The Decryptathon project linked up thousands of PCs across the Internet with a view to enabling complex scientific calculations. More than 180,000 PC owners signed up to take part, and 75,000 of these were eventually used, said the organisers -- IBM and the French muscular dystrophy association, AFM.

"The take-up went far beyond what we hoped for," said Bruno Desbuleux, head of operations for AFM. He said the enthusiasm meant there will be a second Decryptathon session in 2003. The reason that some PCs were not used, said Desbuleux, was that many were business PCs performing administrative roles. "For reasons of Internet security none of those ended up being used," he said. "But such is the success of the first operation that we will try to secure them and use them in future."

Another factor that limited the numbers used was that the client software only ran on machines running Windows. "We want to extend the next operation to other operating systems, notably in partnership with Apple," said Desbuleux.

Set up in December after the success of a 2001 muscular dystrophy telethon, the Decryptathon aimed to carry out, rapidly and cheaply, the necessary calculations to classify an exhaustive list of 500,000 proteins. The results will help the scientific community in its research into genetic diseases.

Instead of using a single supercomputer for the calculations, the organisers opted for the principal of distributed computing as being faster and cheaper.

Distributed computing works on the basis of tens of thousands of volunteered computers working in parallel across the Net, each of which handles a small portion of the required data. The approach has already been used by United Devices and the University of Oxford in research into cancer as well by as the Seti@home project, which investigates extraterrestrial radio signals.

The Decryptathon began on 11 March, 2002, and was completed on 7 May. During those two months each computer would have contributed some 133 hours of calculations giving a total of more than 10 million computing hours. By comparison, using a single conventional computer the same calculations would have taken over a thousand years, explained IBM and AFM in a joint statement.

In the weeks to come the database of findings will be checked and tabulated by Genomining, a French biotech company that specialises in the handling of biological information. The findings will be made available to the scientific community by September.

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