Harnessing the power of volunteer computing


Joshua Dale

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Harnessing the power of volunteer computing

Computing is power, and UND's Dr. Travis Desell is effectively harnessing all the power he can.

Desell, a faculty member in Department of Computer Science, is researching and developing "volunteer computing programs" (VCPs) that take advantage of the world's growing and ever-improving computing and networking capabilities. And his innovative collaborative approach is opening doors for other researchers on campus to explore worlds they might have thought impossible – at least, until now.

Volunteer computing offers a cost-effective alternative to the world's most advanced supercomputers.

Volunteer computing is a form of distributed computing in which an application is shared among potentially unlimited numbers of computers over the Internet. A client program runs on an ad hoc network of "volunteered" computers when they are otherwise idle (not being used by their owners) and returns the resulting computations to the server program. The server manages the work by creating and sending jobs to the client, or volunteered, computers and organizing the results.

Research promise

Recently, Desell started collaborating with Susan Felege, a Department of Biology faculty member who is researching game bird ecology and management. Desell is tailoring a VCP to analyze video Felege is collecting on the nesting and mating habits of sharp-tailed grouse around the oil patch in western North Dakota.

Saving time is another advantage of volunteer computing. Felege is projecting more than 50,000 hours of video will be taken over the course of her project. Most of the footage will be hours of inactivity.

This is where Desell comes in.

"Initially, user computers will scan through the video identifying 'interesting' segments where we think a predator attacked the nest, or when the grouse left or came back to the nest," said Desell.

"Basically, we need to separate movement of the grouse and predators from wind blowing the grass around using computer-vision techniques," he said. "After we've identified the video that's interesting, on the public webpage, our volunteers will be able to stream the video, make observations and discuss the video. We're hoping this will be both fun and really educational. It seems like a good way to teach people about wildlife. I think it's a unique and really exciting project."

The goal of the project is to determine what impact the oil industry has on the surrounding wildlife.

Desell's expertise is a welcome addition to UND. His VCPs aid in improving the quality of life for mankind and animals, and the time and money saved promotes sustainability. This much-need tool is changing the way the research community does business.

Desell is optimizing VCPs to take advantage of the latest technologies. The client program is able to run on the most popular operating systems. It harnesses the extra power of 64-bit—the amount of data able to be computed at once—central processing units (CPU)—the operational heart of computers—and is able to use multi-core CPUs—a single computing component containing two or more processors—by running multiple instances of the program. About 30,000 users are currently volunteering their computers worldwide.

History of VCP

Desell knows this kind of project intimately. He worked on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's "MilkyWay@home" and is adapting it to fit UND's research environment. MilkyWay@home was built using the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) system. DNA@home, a VCP for UND researchers, is based off RTI's MilkyWay model.

MilkyWay@Home uses evolutionary algorithms, such as differential evolution, genetic search, and particle swarm optimization—complex problem-solving programs inspired, in part, by the social behavior of bird flocking or fish schooling— to create an accurate three-dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy.

DNA@home employs statistical sampling methods to discover transcription factors—the "on/off" regulators—between genes in DNA. Current research aims to understand the tuberculosis genome and Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague.

This is where VCP resources could play a vital role.

"I feel that it is very important to extend volunteer computing research to other institutions," Desell said. "This will broaden possibilities for our students to work with researchers on large scale multi-university projects and increase opportunities for grant funding. I especially want the community and North Dakota's K-12 education system to get involved in volunteer computing. This is a great way to for students and the public to not only learn about the cutting-edge research here at UND but also become an active participant in this science."

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