November 28, 2001

Linux helps computing grid battle breast cancer

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Linux will be an important piece of a grid computing system for diagnosing breast cancer that IBM is building at a string of universities across the United States and Canada.

IBM and the University of Pennsylvania announced today they are starting to build a computing grid -- initially linking hospitals at four universities, and potentially involving thousands of hospitals -- that will pool the university computing resources to speed the diagnosis and screening of breast cancer.

IBM is calling the grid a "three-tiered system" that will run Linux, Windows, and IBM's Unix OS AIX on different parts of the system, but Linux will be used to power gateways from the universities to the super-fast, research-focused Internet 2, says Dan Powers, IBM's v.p. of Linux Solutions. IBM's eServer 1300 Linux cluster will also be used at the grid's regional hubs for a high-speed platform to process data and run applications on the grid.

"The universities do like open standards; they have a tremendous amount of familiarity with Linux," Powers says, explaining the advantage of Linux. "The students ... haven't been using Linux for four years, they've been using it for eight years -- they were using it for four years before they got to college. Those students are coming to corporations, and by the way, those students are becoming the researchers at these major universities."

Powers also says Linux's speed and stability are also important for the university hospitals engaged in important research. A crashed computer can cause lost time and data.

Powers calls grid computing "the next evolution of computing, the next big wave." In the last couple of years, grid computing, in which many computers share processing power and disk space over a far-flung network as in the SETI@home project, has become more popular in part because of the Open Source Globus Project. Powers credits the Globus Project with popularizing grid computing at universities and other research facilities, and he predicts corporations will soon begin to recognize how grids of computers can increase their computing power and save money. He predicts companies will take existing computing resources and tie them into grids.

"In the future, companies will have a grid on their intranet, and they'll have a grid that's on their extranet, and a grid on their Internet, maybe," Powers says. "They'll run all of their key business applications on that grid."

In addition to harnessing the grid for fast data crunching, IBM and the participating universities expect their computing grid to save money, too, by allowing cancer doctors to share mammograms or X-rays digitally, instead of shipping them or taking new mammograms.

The grids will also help tie together data that could identify populations of women affected by breast cancer around the world, Powers says. After the initial four universities, three in the United States and one in Canada, the grid could eventually link computers are thousands of cancer treatment centers together, Powers adds.

The first step for IBM and partner Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working on getting the grid running at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's not one of those things that you can ever say is done," Powers says. "But the work is starting now."

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