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September 24, 2007

Petaflops for health

Most people are probably familiar with SETI@Home and similar initiatives that use spare CPU cycles on networked commodity PCs (both in the office and at home) to deliver what effectively amounts to a very large-scale parallel computing facility.

The Folding@home initiative - which uses the same technique to understand protein folding, misfolding, and related diseases - is going one step further, using the streaming processors now more common in consumer electronics such as games consoles.

This advance utilizes streaming processors now common in inexpensive consumer electronics, such as the Cell processor in Sony’s PlayStation 3  or personal computers with Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) from ATI, to achieve performance previously only possible on supercomputers. With this new technology, we are able to attain performance on the 100 gigaflop scale per computer, at a very modest cost (~$500).

Thus, armed with this new technology, we are setting out on a new initiative to take Folding@Home to even greater heights.  By combining merely ~25,000 computers (each with some sort of streaming processor), we could perform calculations on the Petaflop scale (1,000,000,000,000,000 floating point operations per second) – a level of performance currently unmatched even by the fastest supercomputers. As Folding@Home currently consists of approximately 200,000 actively processing computers, we expect that as this hardware becomes more common, we would easily surpass the 10 Petaflop level.

OK, the PS3 isn't that popular as a games console right now.  But it's an interesting development in terms of where technology is going.


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