Idle computers further research

In an effort to further cancer research and reduce costs, Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, a member of the University Health Network, has decided to implement a virtual supercomputer.

The hospital is in the process of linking its desktop computers together with Platform Computing Inc.’s Platform ActiveCluster. By doing so, researchers will have access to the computing power of every desktop PC within the organization.

Yury Rozenman, director of life sciences business development at Platform explained that the idea of harnessing the power of idle computer cycles has become a viable option for organizations that perform large amounts of research.

“A lot of companies are beginning to realize that they have a lot of CPU capacity within their whole enterprise. Most people in an organization typically utilize only three to five per cent of their computing capabilities, and most often these machines sit idly during the night,” he said. “Even researchers’ computers are not doing computations.”

What has become apparent, Rozenman said, is that these idle machines can be used to run a number of distributed applications. These PCs will be given a portion of what could be terabytes of data, analyze it and then send it back to a server that will present the results in the way that it would if it were produced from dedicated hardware.

In this case, the data will include studies in genomics, proteomics and other areas of cancer research. Dr. Christopher Paige, vice-president of research at the University Health Network, Princess Margaret Hospital sees the initiative as a key to furthering the organization’s research capabilities.

“We are a research hospital, and computing power is increasingly important for the kind of research we do. And of course, computing power can be very expensive, so anything that we can do to utilize the full power of our existing resources is quite important to us,” he said.

Paige went on to explain that because most of the hospital’s funding for research is accrued through donors and grants won by scientists, the efficient use of funds is critical for their work to continue.

The cost-saving factor is important, according to IDC Canada analyst Alan Freedman.

“Customers are becoming more aware of the grid computing option, and for sectors like health care that are fighting for every dollar, the ability to really utilize computing resources more efficiently is imperative,” Toronto-based Freedman said.

However, this type of solution is not limited to the health care sector, Rozenman insisted.

“This type of implementation could easily be done in the financial industry or an industry like oil and gas exploration because many of the algorithms are similar,” he said.

The computing can take place either once a screen saver is activated during off hours or behind the scenes while a user is actually working.

“It’s completely unobtrusive,” Rozenman said.

While Princess Margaret Hospital’s implementation is in its early stages, plans are in the works for future uses of the technology. Within the next several months, thousands more computers from across the entire University Health Network will be tapped for the grid, and applications other than research are being discussed.

“We’re looking at this as an increased efficiency from all aspects. We’ll have better research and make a more cost-effective use of the system,” Paige said.

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