Combined PCs beat second fastest supercomputer in mapping Milky Way

February 15th, 2010 - 4:52 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 15 (IANS) Legions of personal computers (PCs), engaged in a project to map the Milky Way, beat the world’s second fastest supercomputer in sheer performance.
At this very moment, tens of thousands of PCs worldwide are quietly working together to solve the largest and most basic mysteries of our galaxy.

Enthusiastic volunteers from Africa to Australia are donating the computing power of everything from decade-old desktops to sleek new netbooks to help computer scientists and astronomers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute map our Milky Way.

Now, just this month, the collected computing power of these humble home computers has surpassed one petaflop, a computing speed that surpasses the world’s second fastest supercomputer.

Since the project began, more than 45,000 individual users from 169 countries have donated computational power to the effort. Currently, approximately 17,000 users are active in the system.

The project, MilkyWay@Home, uses the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform, which is widely known for the SETI@home project, used to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Today, MilkyWay@Home has outgrown even this famous project, in terms of speed, making it the fastest computing project on the BOINC platform and perhaps the second fastest public distributed computing programme ever in operation (just behind Folding@home).

The interdisciplinary team behind MilkyWay@Home, which ranges from professors to undergraduates, began the formal development under the BOINC platform in July 2006 and worked tirelessly to build a volunteer base from the ground up to build its computational power.

Each user participating in the project signs up their computer and offers up a percentage of the machine’s operating power that will be dedicated to calculations related to the project.

For the MilkyWay@Home project, this means that each personal computer is using data gathered about a very small section of the galaxy to map its shape, density, and movement.

In particular, computers donating processing power to MilkyWay@Home are looking at how the different dwarf galaxies that make up the larger Milky Way galaxy, have been moved and stretched following their merger with the larger galaxy millions of years ago.

This is done by studying each dwarf’s stellar stream. Their calculations are providing new details on the overall shape and density of dark matter in the Milky Way galaxy, which is widely unknown.

The galactic computing project had very humble beginnings, according to Heidi Newberg, associate professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer.

Her personal research to map the 3-D distribution of stars and matter in the Milky Way using data from the extensive Sloan Digital Sky Survey could not find the best model to map even a small section of a single galactic star stream in any reasonable amount of time.

“I was a researcher sitting in my office with a very big computational problem to solve and very little personal computational power or time at my fingertips,” Newberg said.

“Working with the MilkyWay@Home platform, I now have the opportunity to use a massive computational resource that I simply could not have as a single faculty researcher, working on a single research problem.”

Before taking the research to BOINC, Newberg worked with Malik Magdon-Ismail, associate professor of computer science, to create a stronger and faster algorithm for her project, says a Rensselaer Polytechnic release.

Together they greatly increased the computational efficiency and set the groundwork for what would become the much larger MilkyWay@Home project.

All of the research, results, data, and even source code are made public and regularly updated for volunteers on the main MilkyWay@Home Web site found at: http://MilkyWay.cs.rpi.edu/.

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