Strong Medicine

Juno joins fight against disease

Juno Online Services burns through $9.6 million per quarter. But the free Internet service provider hopes its Virtual Supercomputer Project will help reverse its cash flow and keep e-mail free, while helping scientists search the human genome for disease-fighting proteins.

Juno hopes about one-quarter of its 4.1 million active subscribers will donate some processing power to the project, creating the worlds largest supercomputer and, perhaps, breaking the petahertz barrier by creating the aggregate computing power of 1 million gigahertz processors.

So far, participation is voluntary. But Juno Senior Vice President Gary Baker says if too few people sign up, members may be forced to join the project, conducted in concert with LaunchCyte, a Pittsburgh bioinformatics company.

"Options for free Internet access are not as broad as they were four months ago," he says. "A year ago, a bevy of companies were offering all you can eat. Today, its only a handful offering limited Web access, upgradable to a billable service package."

Not a Banner Year

Most of the players in the free Internet game have found advertising dwindling, so they are attaching more strings to the service. Juno hopes to avoid that by appealing to subscriber altruism, and earning money from research labs.

Nonprofit laboratories and private pharmaceutical companies are using the human genome to search for sequences of molecules in DNA that produce proteins that can fight disease. Its the type of search that requires hundreds of millions of tests, hoping a handful will pay off. The participating lab might divide the work into 1 million packages of 100 tests each and assign a task to each of 1 million computers that have donated some time. The alternative is renting computer farms and hoping it doesnt bankrupt a company in an industry where it takes about $400 million in R&D and trials to bring a drug to market.

Technology Repurposed

Juno already collects responses to the ads it serves up to subscribers. Using the same technology, Juno will download the mathematical tasks to subscribers computers. The processing will be done offline, while the subscribers still have their computers on but are taking breaks. The next time the user signs onto the network, the results of the tasks will be uploaded.

The apps will run as screen savers. Still, energy watchers say this and other distributed computing projects are potentially wasteful and are asking participants to take some simple steps to conserve power.

"Were not asking people to leave it on all the time," says Junos Baker, who looks at the project as a way to harness processing power normally wasted. "Just leave it on as much as you normally do. If youre concerned about power, turn the monitor off."

Thats what Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist Alan Meier recommends to the millions of computer users who donate processing power to SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Monitors typically gobble more power than the computer, even when the central processing unit is crunching numbers. Meier estimates that a typical monitor runs on 100 watts, which translates to 875 kilowatt hours per year, or about $90 per year. Everything else together — CPU, modem, printer, scanner, speakers — probably adds up to about the same.

Computers can be in one of four modes: unplugged and using no power; on standby, using very little power; in sleep mode, using a little bit more power; and at full churn when the microprocessor is spinning.

At the computers control panel, users can enable "power management," so the system goes into sleep mode after an hour or so of idleness. Users can contribute processing power for, say, 30 or 45 minutes at a time until the machine goes into sleep mode, and still save energy, Meier says. "People forget that if theyre going to run these programs, they dont need their monitors on."

Meier recommended that Californians not contribute hours to the SETI@home project or Junos bioinformatics effort until the power crisis eases.

Though Lawrence Berkeley scientist Jonathan Koomey refutes estimates by the Greening Earth Society that the Internet accounts for 8 percent of all energy use in the U.S., saying the number is likely closer to 2 percent, he agrees that Californians should pass on the computing projects for now.