African scientists plug into volunteer computing projects

Hannelore Hämmerle and Nicole Crémel
20 August 2007

Volunteer computing projects like SETI@home use spare capacity on home and office computers to do scientific calculations. For African scientists with limited computing resources in their own institutes, volunteer computing is an opportunity to plug into global processing power at little cost. And for volunteers the world over, it is a chance to contribute directly to African science. This was the theme of a workshop that took place between 16-22 July at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg, South Africa. The workshop attracted 35 scientists from 18 countries across the African continent.

The workshop put a strong emphasis on practical know-how, with students spending most of each day - and well into the night - working in the AIMS computer lab, learning step-by-step how to install volunteer computing projects on servers that they had also installed themselves. Participants included mathematicians, computer scientists and epidemiologists who were encouraged to consider how science projects from their own universities could benefit from volunteer computing.

The framework for volunteer computing taught on the course was the open source software called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). SETI@home and a range of other projects, including LHC@home, all use this framework. The instructors on the course included BOINC experts from CERN, the Niels Bohr Institute, the Swiss Tropical Institute, Extremadura University and Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. One keen tutor was a volunteer based in Botswana who has been helping projects like SETI@home for several years.

Not all scientific computing problems are suited to volunteer computing, and not all universities in Africa have sufficient bandwidth to manage even the rather modest needs of a BOINC server. But even for those not immediately able to launch a large-scale volunteer computing project, the course imparted skills across a range of useful open-source technologies that BOINC relies upon, while also introducing participants to more advanced concepts such as Grid technology.

The workshop was a project of the Africa@home partnership, which includes CERN, the World Health Organization, the University of Geneva and the non-governmental organization IC Volunteers. The Geneva International Academic Network sponsors the partnership. Africa@home launched a volunteer computing project last year called, based on an epidemiological model developed at the Swiss Tropical Institute. The project has clocked-up more than 2000 CPU-years of simulations on 12,000 machines owned by more than 6000 volunteers. This proved an ideal platform to train the participants, who used the test-case as a model.

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