The project will use a computer grid – basically, a network of computers and data storage systems, brought together to share computing power. The project will enable millions of computer owners worldwide to contribute idle computing resources with the goal of developing a collection of potential anti-smallpox drugs.
IBM describes grid computing as enabling "the virtualisation of distributed computing resources such as processing, network bandwidth and storage capacity to create a single system image, granting users and applications seamless access to vast IT capabilities."
Grid computing is different from the World Wide Web, which only enables communication through browsers, because it allows access to various computer resources. It is also different from peer-to-peer computing, which enables file-sharing between two users, because it allows sharing of resources among many.
Individuals can participate in the Smallpox Research Grid Project by downloading a screensaver from www.grid.org.
The screensaver will unobtrusively donate the computer's idle processing power and link it into a worldwide grid that will act as a virtual supercomputer capable of analysing billions of molecules in a fraction of the time it would take in a laboratory.
Once processing is complete, the program will send results back to a data centre and will request new data to analyse. The new data will then be analysed by the individual machine and the results returned the next time the computer user connects to the internet.
The project, co-ordinated by California-based United Devices, will be managed by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases on behalf of the US Department of Defence.
Researchers from the University of Oxford and Essex University in England, the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center in the US, will also participate in the project.
United Devices, a grid solutions company, said that its software has been tested and does not pose any security threats to the participating networks.
The company also dismissed privacy concerns, claiming that the software only enables the grid to tap in and use the computing power of a PC's microprocessor.