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National | IBM's "distributed computing" searches for a treatment for smallpox

Issue: "The cost of war," Feb. 15, 2003

Your computer can help fight terrorism. IBM helped launch a plan to use up to 2 million ordinary PCs to find a molecule that fights smallpox. Users can join the effort by simply downloading a screen saver.

Researchers say the combined power of 2 million PCs is 30 times greater than the fastest supercomputer. The project works by using idle processing power. A program downloadable from a site called PatriotGrid (www.grid.org) works quietly, running calculations whenever a PC has spare resources. Results are sent back over the Internet and forwarded to the secretary of defense.

The technology is called "distributed computing," and such programs already exist to search for extraterrestrial life, study protein, and analyze human genetics. The PatriotGrid project uses a library of 35 million potential drug molecules and simulates their reaction to the smallpox virus. Experts say they can search for this needle in a haystack in a fraction of the time needed in a laboratory.

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IBM calls the technology "Grid" computing because it links many computers together to perform a single task. The company wants to use systems like this for business purposes. A major corporation could save millions by using processing power that currently does nothing.

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