World Community Grid and the Greening of Information Technology

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IBM Senior Information Technology Architect John Lamb, Ph.D. explains the inner workings of World Community Grid, and how it contributes to humanitarian research while helping to reduce the environmental impact of large-scale computing.

By making use of our unused compute power, World Community Grid has saved an immense amount of electrical energy and reduced the carbon footprint that would have resulted from the use of traditional High Performance Computing. World Community Grid is a significant contributor to green information technology (IT) and is a great way for anyone to be involved in green IT with the added benefit of helping to address global environmental and health concerns.

World Community Grid is based on grid computing, and like cloud computing – the subset of grid computing that includes utility computing and other approaches to sharing computing resources – is based on the concept of IT virtualization. The IT industry is on a track to use virtualization to manage the needs of IT customers in a way that helps reduce the needs for energy consumption and computer hardware. For each of its projects, World Community Grid aggregates the unused computing power of more than 200,000 donor machines around the world to form a virtual supercomputer. World Community Grid then makes its massive computing power available free of charge to humanitarian research projects – everything from the search for cures for disease to simulations that yield insights into global environmental concerns.

One of those concerns – the energy resources and carbon footprint associated with large-scale computing – is addressed directly by World Community Grid. In fact, some World Community Grid research projects are environmental in nature and are helping to reduce carbon footprint in other ways. Searching for new molecular compounds that could be used to make less expensive and more efficient solar cells is just one example.

By consolidating the unused computing power of machines that in some cases draw 30 to 40 percent of their maximum energy requirements even when idle, World Community Grid is designed to help reduce environmental impact. This is detailed by the chart below, which shows the typical utilization rates of different classes of computers – from large corporate mainframes to the Intel-based servers used for smaller computing jobs and in most PCs.

Multi-million dollar mainframes typically are utilized on a 24/7 basis at least partly because of the large financial investments they represent. Mainframe processes are typically computing intensive, and are run at all times – including nights and weekends. By contrast, smaller Intel-based servers are not typically used at night or on weekends. Therefore, creating virtual servers from underutilized Intel-based machines not only allows much better and easier sharing of resources, but also distributes utilization more evenly on the large physical machines that host virtual servers.

The PCs that supply their unused computing power to World Community Grid have similar characteristics to underutilized Intel-based servers. Most Intel-based servers are only utilized between five and 15 percent of the time, and most PCs – in terms of their true computing capacity – are utilized almost none of the time!

It is important to note that World Community Grid aggregates spare computing time unobtrusively and without substantially increasing energy consumption. Contributors to World Community Grid are not asked use their computers any differently than normal.
That is, they are not asked to run them 24/7 or prevent them from going to sleep or shutting down. In addition, World Community Grid defaults to using only 60 percent of spare computing time to use less energy. On a typical laptop computer, World Community Grid use increases power consumption by only three watts – less than an incandescent night light. Community members also can adjust the default 60 percent figure to whatever is preferred or appropriate for their hardware or software.

By making use of otherwise unused compute power, World Community Grid saves an immense amount of electrical energy and reduces the carbon footprint typically associated with High Performance Computing using supercomputers. A supercomputer, in addition to its own power consumption, needs a very large additional amount of power for cooling. World Community Grid avoids this issue since participating machines are usually single units that do not substantially increase the heat in their environments. Thus, running a research project on World Community Grid typically requires much smaller energy expenditure than running the same project on a supercomputer.

All of these factors enable World Community Grid to make significant contributions to green IT. As one of the hundreds of thousands of contributors to World Community Grid, I am proud to help support vital humanitarian research while helping to bring about the greening
of IT.

John Lamb is a Senior Technical Staff Member and Senior Certified IT Architect for IBM. Dr. Lamb is the author of The Greening of IT: How Companies Can Make a Difference for the Environment (2009).

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