Folding @Home

When I first started participating in Temple University's ACM chapter, we used to do a yearly community service.  The one that sticks out in my mind was Philadelphia Cares -- we'd participate in some of their larger events.  This was a great idea, but membership participation fell -- people just didn't want to go around sweeping up trash in Philly.  A few of us (ACM officers) decided to try to find something computer-centric.  We needed something that was computer oriented and still a service to the community.  We went through several ideas -- everything from doing events on Second Life to computer donations.  Some of them struck the group's interest, but they were too big for us.  Other just got laughed at.  I forget who originally suggested it, but we finally had an idea to get behind:  Folding at Home.

I'll give a small explanation for those of you who don't know what F@H is.  There are several computer problems that are just too big for a single computer to handle.  One of these problems is protein folding.  The 3d shape of a protein is a big area of study for those in the biomedical field.  Protein folding is believed to hold answers for diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, sickle-cell, and mad cow disease.  Understanding the shapes of proteins reveals and effects its functions.  Stanford University started Folding at Home as a way to leverage people's spare CPU and GPU cycles to help work on some of these protein folding problems.  Volunteers can install a client on their computer(s) that will download a small bit of work, process it with idle CPU and GPU time, and send the results back to Stanford.  These results are published as academic research papers.
In Motion
Christian Willman and I started ACM's contribution in the summer of 2009.  We would meet in the Temple ACM office after work several days a week during the summer and assembled equipment.  Some of the equipment was donated by members.  Most of it was obtained from the Temple Computer Recycling Center.  We also obtained some other donations that helped:
  • Jon Ikoniak donated an old half-height rack
  • Christian Wilman  donated several machines, a switch, zip ties, RJ45 ends, and some cable
  • Rob Masterson threw in a wireless router (for general office use)
  • I threw in some machines, some tools, CAT5 cable, a router, RJ45 ends

We assembled, networked, and set up the equipment.  Since we're all geeks, we decided to run Debian on all of our machines.  From there, we spent some time setting up F@H.  To ease the process, we created a few scripts to create a fah user and to create the appropriate directories.  Just for the record, we later (as in months) discovered Origami and started leveraging it.  We even started integrating it into our website.  We haven't done a good job at maintaining it (the current list is a bit out-of-date...some computers have done, others have joined).  The computers in our office run a cron job that occasionally SSHs into our web server and posts its current progress in a text file.  This text file gets parsed by some PHP code when you view the page (btw:  we run Drupal).  It was pretty neat to be able to look at a web page and to see how far each machine was progressing on its current work unit.

Since our initial launch, we're also leveraged several other machines around us.  We've not only leveraged our home machines, but we've also managed to leverage the CIS department's group of Lucas machines.  We've even gotten some of the labs to start folding.  At the time of this writing, we rank 1379 of 182762.  That puts us in the top 1% of folding teams.