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Crowdsourced computing platform wields exaflops of power in Covid-19 fight

Image credit: DT

The Folding@Home project, which uses volunteers’ unused computing capacity to perform complex biological simulations, has seen such a surge in sign-ups that it has now reached exaflops of computing power.

The project now has 1.5 exaflops of computer power, meaning that it can perform 1,500,000,000,000,000,000 operations every second. This allows for performance a magnitude faster than IBM Summit, which is recognised as the world’s fastest supercomputer with a benchmark of 150 petaflops.

The Folding@Home project was started in 2000, and is based at Washington University in St Louis. It uses the idle resources of volunteers’ computers, which have the software installed, to perform molecular dynamics simulations. This allowed for computationally expensive problems to be divided up and resolved by computers all around the world, essentially creating a distributed supercomputer from volunteers’ computers.

While the project initially focused on protein folding, it has shifted to simulating the mechanics of specific diseases like Ebola, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancers. Since February, the project has been focused on coronavirus simulations.

Volunteers’ CPUs and GPUs are being used to simulate the binding of the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV to host cells. In simple terms: the novel coronavirus infects cells through the 'injection' of genetic material via a spike protein on its outer surface, so a possible route to fighting the disease is to block the spike protein from binding to receptor cells. However, performing molecular-level simulations to understand how these proteins move over time – which could allow researchers to identify potential drug targets – is an extraordinarily computationally expensive project.

Since the Folding@Home team announced that they were working on these coronavirus simulations and called for more volunteers to donate unused resources to accelerate the work, the project has seen their contributor base increase approximately twelvefold, with 400,000 new volunteers signing up in the past fortnight. The project currently employs more than 4.5 million CPU cores and more than 400,000 GPUs.

So many volunteers have signed up to contribute to the project that the Folding@Home servers are struggling to distribute work to everyone’s computers.

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked an urgent effort from researchers in academia and in industry to develop faster and cheaper tests, antibody tests, and a vaccine. IBM has dedicated its record-breaking supercomputer, IBM Summit, to the task of performing molecular simulations and announced last week that it had identified dozens of potential compounds which could be used to prevent the virus binding to receptor cells, several of which are already available with regulatory approval or have had multiple studies with promising results.

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