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IBM, screensaver to tackle smallpox

Big Blue and a host of tech partners are working on software for the Defense Department that will let the idle time of people's PCs be devoted to investigate anti-smallpox drugs.

IBM and a host of technology partners are working on software for the U.S. Defense Department that will let the idle time of anyone's computer be devoted to investigate anti-smallpox drugs, the companies are expected to announce Wednesday.

The project will take the form of a screensaver people can put on their PCs, in a effort similar to SETI@home, which scours radio telescope signals for evidence of extraterrestrial life. A group of research institutes will use the research and send their results to the Defense Department.

Partners in the effort include UnitedDevices, a company founded by SETI@home organizers; Accelrys, which specializes in pharmaceutical and chemical calculation software; and Evotec OAI, which provides drug discovery services.

Although a vaccination exists for smallpox, there are no drugs for treating infected people, researchers involved in the effort say. Among those who plan to use the distributed calculation engine are Oxford University and the University of Essex in the United Kingdom; the Robarts Research Institute, the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the University of Western Ontario.

The partners are labeling the project the Smallpox Research Grid, illustrating the gradual broadening of the term "grid." "Grid" is now used to describe a range of systems, from loosely connected groups of thousands or millions of PCs to a collection of blade servers in a single chassis. Originally, grids generally were a federation of servers--often higher-end machines or supercomputers--that collectively tackle computing problems.

While grids are currently popular in academic and research settings, IBM and others believe they will be useful in businesses as well. IBM last month released 10 grid products.

If the Smallpox Research Grid can round up 2 million participants, the collective computing power could be as high as 1.1 petaflops, or 1.1 quadrillion calculations per second, the companies said. Potential participants can download a screensaver at

IBM is providing back-end infrastructure to the effort, including more than one of its top-end p690 "Regatta" servers, DB2 software and its enterprise storage server "Shark" system.