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Friday, November 2, 2007

News: PS3 network enters record books

Screen shot of PS3 folding program, Sony
Protein folding is critical to most biological functions
A project that harnesses the spare processing power of Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3) to help understand the cause of diseases has entered the record books.

Guinness World Records has recognised folding@home (FAH) as the world's most powerful distributed computing network.

FAH has signed up nearly 700,000 PS3s to examine how the shape of proteins affect diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The network has more than one petaflop of computing power - the equivalent of 1,000 trillion calculations per second.

"To have folding@home recognized by Guinness World Records as the most powerful distributed computing network ever is a reflection of the extraordinary worldwide participation by gamers and consumers around the world and for that we are very grateful," said Professor Vijay Pande of Stanford University and a leader of the FAH project.

Disease link

Distributed computing is a method for solving large complex problems by dividing them between many computers.

Cell chip
256 billion calculations per second
2.5MB of on-chip memory
Able to shuttle data to and from off-chip memory at speeds up to 100 gigabytes per second,
234 million transistors

They harness the idle processing power of computers to crunch small packets of data, which are then fed back over the internet to a central computer.

The technique has been used by several groups to study everything from how malaria spreads to searching for new cancer drugs.

One of the most high profile projects is seti@home, which uses computer cycles to search through thousands of hours of radio telescope signals for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

FAH uses distributed computing to examine protein folding and how it maybe linked to diseases.

Proteins that do not fold correctly have been implicated in diseases such as Alzheimer's, Huntingdon's, BSE and many cancers.

Speed test

Until March this year, FAH only ran on PCs.

The program had around 200,000 computers participating in the program, the equivalent of about 250 teraflops (trillion calculations per second).

The addition of 670,000 PS3s has taken the computing power of the network to more than one petaflop.

By comparison BlueGene L, which tops the list of most powerful supercomputers, has a top speed of just 280.6 teraflops.

The boost is in part because of the PS3's powerful processor, known as the "cell", which runs up to 10 times faster than current PC chips.

"It is clear that none of this would be even remotely possible without the power of PS3, it has increased our research capabilities by leaps and bounds," said Prof Pande.

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