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The power of computers

A Queen’s alumnus develops an innovative platform that harnesses idle computer power to aid groundbreaking research.

Dan Desjardins
Queen's alumnus Daniel Desjardins, an assistant professor (Physics and Space Science) at the Royal Military College of Canada, and his team at Kings Distributed Systems (KDS), have collaborated with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation and Queen’s faculty members to develop a distributed computing model.

The expectation surrounding what our computer devices can do for us has grown exponentially in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of how we are testing the limits of our computer speeds, as we juggle Skype and Zoom calls from home, while managing emails, searching websites and writing documents. A fast and reliable computing platform is especially important to Queen’s researchers, who need to be able to analyze data in a timely, cost-efficient way. 

Daniel Desjardins, a Queen’s alumnus (Physics PhD) and assistant professor (Physics and Space Science) at the Royal Military College of Canada, and his team at Kings Distributed Systems (KDS), have collaborated with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation and Queen’s faculty members to develop a distributed computing model to aide these efforts. KDS has built a secure platform to help researchers and decision-makers with a variety of projects, including the critical analysis and policy making surrounding COVID-19.

Evolving Distributed Computing

Although the concept of distributed computing has been around since the 1960s, Dr. Desjardins’s team adapted the technology to use cutting edge web technology in a modern setting.

“Whenever our special screensaver is running, we can harness the computer's idle computing power, even if no one is logged in” says Dr. Desjardins. “Our web-based platform is the most powerful, secure, portable, easy to use, and future-proof platform on the market. It is also faster and cheaper than commercial cloud.”

Kings Distributed Systems was created in 2017, and its development and growth has been fostered by the Queen’s Partnership and Innovation team and the Queen’s Centre for Advanced Computing.

“The university trialed our technology at the Centre for Advanced Computing and on a cluster of computers on campus,” says Dr. Desjardins.  “Our platform allowed a Queen's researcher in physics to deploy a large computational workload and spread it automatically across 40 on-campus computers that were otherwise sitting idle. Those computers, connected by our platform, were able to work together to complete the job in minutes instead of days.”

KDS works with a host of clients, in both non-profit and for-profit sectors. KDS has even developed an educational hybrid computing platform, called the Distributed Compute Labs, which spreads computations over the many idle computers found in schools, homes, and businesses instead of in commercial cloud data centers. It provides this technology at no cost to universities and high schools across Canada.

Dr. Desjardins’s companies maintain a close connection to Queen’s.  

“Over the last three years we've hired 13 students, co-sponsored seven student conferences and hackathons, participated in their business accelerator programs, and, together, have applied for and been awarded over $5.2M in government funding for joint projects” he says.

KDS has also received mentorship and connections for resources through Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) and receptors such as the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council and the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce.

Applications to Policy-Making

Recently, Kings Distributed Systems and research partners at Queen’s and elsewhere received funding through the Government of Canada’s Digital Supercluster initiative to lead a project called The Looking Glass: Protecting Canadians in a Return to Community. The team is building a database that uses predictive modelling to help decision-makers determine the impact that a proposed policy will have on public health and the economy. With partners and contributors from a range of institutions and industry across Canada, this diverse collaboration will develop Looking Glass into a powerful tool to forecast not only COVID-19 infection rates from actions such as re-opening schools, but also other critical public health issues like vaccination campaigns and managing tick-borne diseases.

Edge Computing

The collaborations between KDS and Queen’s continue to grow. Queen’s was recently awarded a large NSERC Alliance award with KDS as the industry partner and Hossam Hassanein (School of Computing) as the lead Principal Investigator. Dr. Hassanein, his team, and KDS are embarking on a four-year, $3-million project that will look into the concept of “edge computing,” technology where data is processed by the device itself or by a local computer or server, rather than being transmitted to a data centre, making it accessible to everyone. This emerging technology could be applied to many applications, like smart homes, transportation and city applications, thus magnifying Canada's impact in the IT and smart services sectors.

“The proposed research will democratize edge computing by exploiting unused heterogeneous computing resources and recycled resources of existing infrastructures to create distributed edge computing clusters,” says Dr. Hassanein. “With our industry partner KDS, we will make edge computing accessible to all rather than restricted to the control of cloud service providers and network operators. This will open an entirely new market for Canadian businesses and local governments, who will be able to act as edge providers themselves.”

During the project Dr. Hassanein’s team will train a diverse group of more than 20 talented, highly-qualified personnel who will go on to help further advance Canada's edge computing technologies and help maintain Canada's leadership in Information and computer technology.

Speaking of the future, Dr. Desjardins says he already has his sights set on new ventures.

“We want to share this technology with 10 more Canadian universities and high schools over the next six months," he says. "On the enterprise, we are scaling out to more verticals and on-boarding more large clients who want to reduce their expenditure on commercial cloud. In the long run, our vision is for our technology to become the web standard for distributed and edge computing.”